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Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins 


The enormous success of the international writing part- 
nership of Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins was 
based on the phenomenal bestseller Is Paris Burning?, 
Or I'll Dress You in Mourning, O Jerusalem!, Freedom 
at Midnight and The Fifth Horseman. The last-named 
work was their first novel. Lapierre and Collins were a 
unique team in that each wrote in his own language and 
their works were then published simultaneously in French 
and English before being translated into sixteen other 
languages. Their work was distinguished by immense 
attention to detail and thorough research. Since the 
publication of their last joint work The Fifth Horseman, 
Collins has published three bestselling novels, Fall From 
Grace, Maze and Black Eagles , while Lapierre published 
two non-fiction bestsellers, The City of Joy and Beyond 


O Jerusalem! 

Is Paris Burning? 

Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning 
Mountbatten and The Independent India 
Mountbatten and The Partition of India 
The Fifth Horseman 

Freedom at 

Dominique Lapierre 

Larry Collins 



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Copyright © Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, 1997 

Reprint, 1999 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in 
any form without the prior written permission of the publishers. 

Printed at Modern Printers, Delhi-110 032 





1 ‘A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue’ i 

2 ‘Walk Alone, Walk Alone’ 20 

3 ‘Leave India to God’ 36 

4 A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 79 

5 An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 10 3 

6 A Precious Little Place 1 5 2 

7 Palaces and Tigers, Elephants and Jewels 163 

8 A Day Cursed by the Stars l8 4 

9 The Most Complex Divorce in History 212 

10 ‘We Will Always Remain Brothers’ 253 

1 1 While the World Slept 2 9* 

12 ‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom’ 328 

13 ‘Our People Have Gone Mad’ 358 

14 The Greatest Migration in History 399 

15 ‘Kashmir - only Kashmir!’ 434 

16 Two Brahmins from Poona 45 1 

17 ‘Let Gandhi Die!’ 472 

18 The Vengeance of Madanlal Pahwa 5«3 


Freedom at Midnight 

19 ‘We Must Get Gandhi Before the Police Get Us’ 520 

20 The Second Crucifixion 















India: before the transfer of power, 

and on the day of Partition xxii-xxiii 

The Punjab 2 4 ] 


Kashmir 437 


The staff of Viceroys House. Broadlands Archives 

‘A rose between two thorns/ Broadlands Archives 

Gandhi and Lady Mountbatten. Broadlands Archives 

Nehru in the garden of Viceroy's House. Reflex 

The coronation of the Maharaja of Patiala. Authors Collection 

The Maharaja of Bikaner receives his weight in gold. Keystone 

The ‘half naked fakir'. Camera Press 
Jinnah in London. 1931. Authors Collection 

Jinnah reviews the last British troops in Karachi. Broadlands 

Indian leaders with Mountbatten, 3 June 1947. Broadlands Archives 
Sir Cyril Radcliffe. Authors Collection 

Mountbatten as Governor-General. Lalit Gopal 

The Mountbattens arrive in Karachi. Broadlands Archives 

The Mountbattens scramble down an embankment in Peshawar. 
Broadlands Archives 

With Sir Evan Jenkins in the Punjab. Broadlands Archives 
The Gateway of India, February 1948. Authors Collection 
Gandhi with his great-nieces. Author's Collection 
Gandhi's assassins before their murder trial. Authors Collection 
Rose petals for the murdered Gandhi. Broadlands Archives 

The Mountbattens and others before Gandhi's funeral pyre. 
Broadlands Archives 

‘The responsibility for governing India has been placed 
by the inscrutable design of providence upon the shoul- 
ders of the British race.' hudyard 

‘The loss of India would be final and fatal to us. It could 
not fail to be part of a process that would reduce us to 

the scale of a minor power. 


to the House of Commons, 
February 1931 

‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now 
the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge ... At 
the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, 
India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, 
which comes but rarely in history, when we step out 
from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when 
the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance . . . 


to the Indian Constituent Assembly, 

New Delhi, August 14* 1947 




In each passing century there are a few defining moments of 
which it can truly be said: ‘Here history was made’ or Here 
mankind’s passage through the ages took a new direction or 
turned towards a new horizon.’ Such a moment occurred on 
the morning of 28 June 19H when Gavrilo Princip stepped 
from the crowds in Sarajevo to assassinate Archduke Franz 
Ferdinand and set Europe on the road to the slaughterhouse 
of the First World War, or again on that winter day in 1942 m 
Chicago when Enrico Fermi ushered in the Atomic Age with 
the first nuclear chain reaction. 

Of equal importance in the history of our fading century 
was yet another moment, this one just seconds after the mid- 
night of 14-15 August 1947 when the Union Jack, emblazoned 
with the Star of India, began its final journey down the flagstaff 
of Viceroy’s House, New Delhi. For the last retreat of that 
proud banner proclaimed far more than just the end of t e 
British Raj and the independence of 400 million people, at .the 
time one-fifth of the population of the globe. It also heralded 
the approaching end of the Age of Imperialism, of those four 
and a half centuries of history during which the white, Chris- 
tian heirs of Europe held most of the planet in their th™ 1 - A 
new world was coming into being that night, the world that 
will go with us across the threshold of the next millennium, 
a world of awakening continents and peoples, of new and 
often conflicting dreams and aspirations. 

High drama it was, and what a cast of characters stood 
centre stage that night! Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Mount- 
batten, Earl of Burma, the last Viceroy, sent out to Delhi to 
yield up the finest creation of the British Empire, proclaimed m 

Freedom at Midnight 

the name of his great-grandmother Queen Victoria. Jawaharlal 
Nehru, a man of impeccable taste, breeding and fastidious 
intelligence, destined to become the first leader of the tumultu- 
ous Third World. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, cool, austere, polite 
to a fault, but determined to force on the departing British 
the formation of a new Islamic nation - while savouring nightly 
the forbidden pleasures of a whisky and soda. 

And, towering above the others, Mohandas Karamchand 
Mahatma (Great Soul) Gandhi, the frail prophet of non- 
violence who had hastened the end of the empire on which 
the sun was never to set by the simple expedient of turning 
the other cheek. In an age when television did not exist, radios 
were rare and most of his countrymen were illiterate, he proved 
a master of communications because he had a genius for the 
simple gesture that spoke to his countrymen’s souls. Surely, 
as historians and editors begin to choose their candidates for 
Man or Woman of the Century, his will be a name high on 
their lists. 

Looming as the backdrop to that dramatic moment was the 
contrast between two Indias. First, the India of the imperial 
legend dying that night, of Bengal Lancers and silk-robed mah- 
arajas, tiger hunts and green polo maidans, royal elephants 
caparisoned in gold, haughty memsahibs and bright young 
officers of the Indian Civil Service donning their dinner jackets 
to dine in solitary splendour in tents in the midst of a steaming 
jungle. Then there was the new India coming into formal 
existence with the approaching dawn, a nation often beset 
by famine and frustration, struggling towards modernity and 
industrial power through the burden of her multiplicity of 
peoples, cultures, tongues and religions. 

Those were the attractions and challenges which determined 
us to write Freedom at Midnight. The publication of the book’s 
original edition in 1975 was blessed by a phenomenon particu- 
larly gratifying to authors — enormous popular success accom- 
panied by wide critical acclaim. It inspired, according to 
screenwriter John Briley, much of his Academy Award- 
winning script for Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi. A 

Preface xiii 

bestseller in Europe, the United States and Latin America, the 
book’s most significant impact was, understandably, on the 
Indian sub-continent. It was translated into every Indian dia- 
lect in which books are published, an accolade once reserved 
for authors such as Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo. It further 
received the flattering, if illegal, compliment of imitation in 
the form of at least 34 pirated editions. In Pakistan, however, 
an embarrassed government banned the book. Why? We men- 
tioned the indisputable, human failing of the Islamic nation’s 
founder - he was not averse to eating a slice of bacon with 
his morning eggs. 

In reviewing our original text for this new fiftieth anniver- 
sary edition, we found little that we felt demanded revision or 
rewriting. We did, however, feel that in view of the half-century 
which has passed since the events described in the book and 
the years since its initial publication, there were some parts of 
the story which merited an updating. To do that, we returned 
to our thirty hours of tape-recorded interviews with Lord 
Mountbatten and the other original sources which underlie 
the book. 

As India and Pakistan mark the fiftieth anniversary of their 
independence, the antagonism which has governed their 
relationship for half a century continues unabated. Both coun- 
tries now possess nuclear weapons and have threatened to 
employ them if menaced, making the sub-continent one of 
the most potentially dangerous regions on earth. Each nation 
regularly accuses the other of fomenting terrorism on its terri- 
tory, India seeing the hand of Pakistan behind the guerrilla 
movement in Kashmir, and Pakistan accusing India of being 
behind the recent urban violence in Karachi and parts of the 

At the heart of the dispute between them is, of course, 
the intractable problem of the lovely Vale of Kashmir, whose 
overwhelmingly Moslem population lives under increasingly 
repressive Indian rule. The United Nations has called repeat- 
edly for a plebiscite on the area’s future, a referendum which 
would almost certainly result in an overwhelming majority for 

X1V Freedom at Midnight 

either independence or union with Pakistan. What makes 
the problem so intractable, however, is the near-certainty that 
any Indian government which would even contemplate either 
of those possibilities would risk unleashing violence by 
Hindu militants on India’s Moslem minority, violence that 
would probably far exceed anything Kashmir has witnessed to 

Lord Mountbatten is blamed by most Pakistanis for Kash- 
mir’s post-independence decision to join the dominion of 
India rather than Pakistan. The accusation is, in fact, both 
unfair and untrue. On the contrary, Mountbatten probably 
came closer than anyone has since to effecting a peaceful sol- 
ution to the problem. With considerable difficulty, he extracted 
from India’s political leaders Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal 
Nehru a pledge to accept a decision by Kashmir’s Hindu 
Maharaja Hari Singh to join his state to Pakistan. (Under the 
terms governing the transfer of power, the rulers of India’s 
princely states were to accede to the dominion either of India 
or of Pakistan, taking into account the desires of the majority 
of their populations.) 

Armed with that agreement, Mountbatten flew to Srinagar 
shortly before 15 August, determined to convince Singh to join 
his state to Pakistan. He urged that course of action on the 
Maharaja while driving in his station-wagon for a day’s trout 
fishing in the Trika River. 

‘Hari Singh,’ he told the prince, ‘you’ve got to listen to me. 

I have come up here with the full authority of the government 
of the future dominion of India to tell you that if you decide 
to accede to Pakistan because the majority of your population 
is Moslem, they will understand and support you.’ 

Singh refused. He told Mountbatten he wanted to become 
the head of an independent nation. The Viceroy, who con- 
sidered Singh ‘a bloody fool’, replied: ‘You just can’t be inde- 
pendent. You are a landlocked country. You’re oversized and 
underpopulated. Your attitude is bound to lead to strife 
between India and Pakistan. You re going to have two coun- 
tries at daggers drawn for your neighbours. You’ll end up 



becoming a battlefield, that’s what will happen. You’ll lose 
your throne and your life, too, if you’re not careful.’ 

Singh persisted, however. He refused to meet officially with 
Mountbatten again during the Viceroy’s visit. Independence 
Day came and went and still Hari Singh vacillated, making no 
official decision on Kashmir’s future. When tribesmen organ- 
ized and armed by Pakistan descended on his capital, Srinagar, 
later that autumn, Singh sent out an SOS for help to New 
Delhi. At that point, it is true, Mountbatten, now Governor- 
General of the new Dominion of India, told Nehru that he 
could not legally order Indian troops into Kashmir unless the 
Maharaja signed a formal act acceding to India. An emissary 
was dispatched to Srinagar with an act of accession. Singh 
signed it in great haste and Indian troops were airlifted to 
Kashmir. They are still there today, and the problem born that 
autumn day continues to poison relations between the two 

Many readers of Freedom at Midnight noted that we did not 
mention in its pages the oft-cited rumours of a love affair 
between Lady Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. 
Our decision not to invoke those rumours was deliberate. 
While there is absolutely no doubt that a special bond of 
affection united Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, there was no 
evidence then nor is there any now that their relationship was 
anything other than platonic. Nehru’s own sister, Mme V.L. 
Pandit, volunteered to us in a conversation that had no bearing 
whatsoever on the Nehru-Edwina relationship that her brother 
had become sexually impotent towards the end of his marriage. 
That condition, she said, caused the end of the marriage and 
plagued Nehru for the rest of his life. Given the premium then 
put on masculine sexuality in Indian society, we found it very 
difficult to imagine that a sister would lie about such a matter 
involving a beloved brother. Furthermore, the valet who cared 
for Nehru’s official bungalow during two visits Lady Mount- 
batten paid to India’s Prime Minister after independence swore 
he had seen no evidence whatsoever that the couple had shared 
a bedroom. 

xvi Freedom at Midnight 

Mountbatten did volunteer that he discussed with his wife 
the secrets of his continuing negotiations with India’s leaders 
and that, on occasion, he used her as a vehicle to pass infor- 
mation informally to Nehru which he could not transmit to 
him officially. 

In the years which followed the publication of Freedom at 
Midnight we, the authors, were on occasion accused of being 
pro-Mountbatten in its pages. To that charge we plead guilty. 
In general, there were two major criticisms levelled at the last 
Viceroy: that he moved too fast in handing over power to 
India and Pakistan in August 1947, and that he did not do 
enough to prevent the terrible slaughters which followed that 

No one, of course, will ever know how many people died 
in those awful weeks. Mountbatten preferred to use the figure 
250,000 dead, an estimate undoubtedly tinged with some wish- 
ful thinking. Most historians of the period place the figure at 
half a million. Some put it as high as two million. 

Whatever that tragic toll, with one exception no one in 
authority in India at the time foresaw a calamity of such magni- 
tude. In the course of our work, we read all the weekly reports 
submitted to the Viceroy by the governors of India’s provinces. 
Those officials, men like Sir Evan Jenkins in the Punjab and 
Sir Olaf Caroe in the North West Frontier Province, rep- 
resented the best and wisest products of British rule in India, 
the mandarins of the Indian Civil Service. They were advising 
a man whose Indian experience was counted in months, not 
years. Yet none of their reports foresaw a wave of violence 
even remotely comparable to that which followed Partition. 

India and Pakistan’s political leaders - Nehru, Patel, Jinnah 
and Liaquat Ali Khan - urged Mountbatten with one voice to 
transfer power to their hands just as swiftly as possible. Those 
men had been agitating and preparing for the exercise of power 
for years. Nothing was going to delay them in getting their 
hands on that power. Whatever their innermost thoughts may 
have been, all of them minimized in their recorded conver- 
sations with Mountbatten the dangers of the coming Partition 



of India and vastly overstated their abilities to deal with any 
troubles which might break out. Only one voice foresaw the 
dimensions of the tragedy which was about to overwhelm the 
sub-continent. That was Gandhi’s, and no one in mid-summer 
1947 was listening to the prophet of non-violence. ^ 

‘What went wrong’, Mountbatten admitted to us, was this 
sheer, simultaneous reaction which nobody foresaw. No one 
predicted millions of people would pull up stakes and change 

sides. No one.’ , , 

What, we asked him, would he have done differently had 

some authoritative voice made such a prediction? 

‘I wouldn’t have done anything differendy’ was his reply - j 
couldn’t have. I would have got the leaders together and said: 
“We’re faced with this problem. What are we going to do? 1 
could have told them “We won’t transfer power” but that they 

would never have accepted.’ 

Some suggest with the benefit of hindsight that Mount- 
batten, acting in concert with the leaders of the two new 
dominions, should have held up the publication of Sir Cynl 
Raddiffe’s boundary awards. That, they argue, would have 
fixed those migrating millions into place, at least temporarily. 
Perhaps. Or would the uncertainty have fuelled the already 
explosive situation and led to even more violence? 

There was one vital piece of knowledge denied to Mount- 
batten in the summer of 1947 which we uncovered during our 
work. This was the fact that Jinnah was dying of TB and had 
been told by his doctors with whom we spoke that he had less 
than six months to live. Had he known that, Mountbatten 
acknowledged, he would very probably have acted quite differ- 
ently in India. Jinnah was the one overwhelming roadblock m 
his attempts to keep India united. Knowing Jinnah was dying, 
Mountbatten would have been sorely tempted, he admitted, 
to await his death. Then, perhaps, an independent Pakistan 
would never have come into being. 

As far as the accusation is concerned that he moved too 
fast that he rushed India and Pakistan into independence, it 
must be remembered that a swift transfer of power was part 


Freedom at Midnight 

of the brief Mountbatten was given by Clement Attlee when 
he was appointed Viceroy in January 1947. Both men knew 
that British power in India had become by that time a hollow 
shell. The proud Indian Civil Service had been allowed to run 
down during the war. The soldiers of England’s conscript army 
in India were no more anxious to die to keep India British 
than Russian conscripts have been to die to keep Chechnya 
Russian. Mountbatten was haunted by the spectre of Direct 
Action Day staged in Calcutta in July 1946 by the Moslem 
League in which 26,000 Hindus were killed in 72 hours 
Another challenge to British authority like that would have 
exposed just how weak England’s power structure had become 
in 1947. Mountbatten’s first concern, therefore, was to see that 
the responsibility for administering and policing India was 
transferred to Indian hands as quickly as possible. It was a 
nationahstically determined ordering of his priorities, but it 
was also the one assigned to him by the men who sent him 
to India. 

One phrase in Chapter 13, entitled ‘Our People Have Gone 
Mad’, incensed a great number of our Indian readers and 
merits, perhaps, some comment from us here. It was Lord 
Mountbatten’s description of Nehru’s and Patel’s appearance 
when he met them in the study of his residence on Saturday 
6 September 1947 on his return from Simla when the worst of 
the post-Partition violence was shaking India. The two leaders, 
he said, ‘looked like a pair of chastened schoolboys’. 

One can certainly say that, at the very least, his was an 
insensitive turn of phrase. The fact is, however, that Mount- 
batten did employ exactly those words in talking to us on tape. 
A week later in a subsequent interview he employed a similar 
phrase to describe the scene. The two men ‘were like school- 
boys, absolutely pole-axed. They didn’t know what had hit 

The last Viceroy read the manuscript of Freedom at Midnight 
before its publication and made no reference to that phrase. 
Nor did he ask us to remove it following so many criticisms 
of its use by Indian readers. Was it up to us as the authors to 



censor his words, however injudicious they might have 
seemed? We thought not at the time of the book’s first publi- 
cation and we feel the same way in regard to this new edition. 

In the years which followed the original publication of Free- 
dom at Midnight, both of us remained close to Lord Mount- 
batten. He took great delight in the book’s success, offering 
copies to Her Majesty the Queen, Prince Charles, for whom 
he had a special affection, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, 
insisting each put aside other concerns to turn their attention 
to the text. 

Mountbatten’s personal archives at his Broadlands Estate 
contained in well-organized, fireproof cabinets virtually every 
piece of paper bearing on his life, from the invitation cards to 
his christening to the menu of the last state dinner he had 
attended. He intended to use those archives as the foundation 
upon which some future author might construct his biography, 
sharing its royalty earnings with his grandchildren. In the years 
we worked together, he scoffed at the notion of designating 
his biographer. To do so, he said, would be like consigning 
himself to the grave. To our surprise, then, he announced to 
us about a year before his death in that mock imperious tone 
he sometimes employed, ‘I have decided that it is you two 
who will write my biography.’ 

‘Lord Louis,’ we protested, ‘you are one of the century’s 
most important Englishmen. This country’s establishment 
would consider it almost an act of treason on your part to 
entrust your biography to an American and a Frenchman.’ 

Mountbatten harrumphed, declaring our reply revealed how 
little either of us understood about the English establishment, 
an institution for which he, in any event, had a very limited 
regard. A few months later he returned to the topic. His son-in- 
law, Lord John Brabourne, the trustee of his archives, agreed, 
he told us, with our judgement. Relieved, we suggested he 
might want to consider Hugh Thomas, then the Regius Pro- 
fessor of History at Oxford, but it was clear his thinking on 
the question was veering back towards his earlier sentiments. 
Mountbatten died without having settled the question. The 


Freedom at Midnight 

task of selecting his official biographer fell, therefore, to his 
son-in-law, who chose Philip Ziegler, the editor of Freedom at 
Midnight , for the task. 

Although few people were aware of it, Mountbatten suffered 
from a series of minor cardio-vascular problems in the closing 
years of his life. His daughters and his doctor urged him to 
lighten his schedule and temper his zest for work. Rarely has 
well-intended advice fallen on deafer ears. 

On occasion in our chats in those years in his Kinnerton 
Street flat in London, the conversation would turn to the 
subject of death. Gandhi’s death in particular fascinated him 
because, he maintained, the Mahatma had achieved in death 
what he had been striving to achieve in life, an end to India’s 
communal violence. That gave a dimension and meaning to 
his death which destiny accords to few humans. Without ever 
saying so explicitly, he implied that such an end was one he 
devoutly wished for, one which he would consider a fitting 
final chapter to his life. 

In August 1979, he prepared, as he did every summer, to 
spend a family holiday at his casde, Classiebawn, in Ireland. 
The day before he left he spoke on the phone to one of the 
authors of this book. 

‘Be careful up there, Lord Louis,’ the author warned, ‘you’re 
an awfully tempting target for those whackos of the IRA.’ 

‘My dear Larry,’ came the reply, ‘once again you’re revealing 
how little you know of these matters. The Irish are well aware 
of my feelings on the Irish question. I am in no danger over 
there whatsoever.’ 

A fortnight later, together with the mother of his son-in-law 
Lord John Braboume and a young child, he was murdered by 
an IRA assassin’s bomb hidden in his motor launch as he was 
setting out to sea for a morning sail. 

He would have had nothing but utter contempt for people 
who would murder an elderly woman and a child. But himself? 
He died swiftly, afloat upon those endless seas which had 
played such an important role in his own and his father’s life. 
Had his death brought some small measure of wisdom to the 



Republicans and Loyalists killing and murdering in Northern 
Ireland, might he not have considered it a worthwhile final 
act, one not incomparable with the death of the man he so 
admired, Mahatma Gandhi? 

Often during our work on Freedom at Midnight he had 
declared, ‘How can we here in the West possibly blame Hindus 
and Moslems for killing each other in India when in Northern 
Ireland we see people of the same basic stock, people who 
worship the same Resurrected Saviour, slaughtering each 

Alas, almost two decades after his death, his sacrifice and 
that of all the others which have followed it have not succeeded 
in implanting among the peoples of Northern Ireland a sem- 
blance of the wisdom Gandhi’s death bequeathed to his 
countrymen and women. 

Larry Collins 
Dominique Lapierre 
December 1996 








• Patna 


[R AJ P U T A N A - ' 


Calcutta &fc- 


> Nagpur. m 







The rude arch of yellow basalt thrusts its haughty form into 
the city’s skyline just above a little promontory lapped by the 
waters of the Bay of Bombay. The Bay’s gentle waves barely 
stir the sullen green sludge of debris and garbage that encircles 
the concrete apron sloping down from the arch to the water s 
edge. A strange world mingles there in the shadows cast by its 
soaring span: snake charmers and fortune tellers, beggars and 
tourists, dishevelled hippies lost in a torpor of sloth and drug, 
the destitute and dying of a cluttered metropolis. Barely a head 
is raised to contemplate the inscription, still clearly legible, 
stretched along the summit: ‘Erected to commemorate the 
landing in India of their imperial majesties, George V and 
Queen Mary on the second of December MCMXI.’ 

Yet, once, that vaulting Gateway of India was the Arch of 
Triumph of the greatest empire the world has ever known. To 
generations of Britons, its massive form was the first glimpse, 
caught from a steamer’s deck, of the storied shores for which 
they had abandoned their Midlands villages and Scottish hills. 
Soldiers and adventurers, businessmen and administrators, 
they had passed through its portals, come to keep the Pax 
Britannica in the empire’s proudest possession, to exploit a 
conquered continent, to take up the White Man’s burden with 
the unshakable conviction that theirs was a race born to rule, 
and their empire an entity destined to endure. 

All that seems so distant now. Today, the Gateway of India 
is just another pile of stone, at one with Nineveh and Tyre, a 
forgotten monument to an era that ended in its shadows half 
a century ago. 


‘A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue 


London, New Year’s Day, 1947 

It was the winter of a great nation’s discontent. An air of 
melancholia hung like a chill fog over London. Rarely, if ever, 
had Britain’s capital ushered in a New Year in a mood so 
bleak, so morose. Hardly a home in the city that festive morn- 
ing could furnish enough hot water to allow a man to shave 
or a woman to cover the bottom of her wash-basin. Londoners 
had greeted the New Year in bedrooms so cold their breath 
had drifted on the air like puffs of smoke. Precious few of 
them had greeted it with a hangover. Whisky, in the places 
where it had been available the night before for New Year’s 
Eve celebrations, had cost £8 a bottle. 

The streets were almost deserted. The passers-by hurrying 
down their pavements were grim, joyless creatures, threadbare 
in old uniforms or clothes barely holding together after eight 
years of make-do and mend. What few cars there were darted 
about like fugitive phantoms guiltily consuming Britain’s rare 
and rationed petrol. A special stench, the odour of post-war 
London, permeated the streets. It was the rancid smell of 
charred ruins drifting up like an autumn mist from thousands 
of bombed-out buildings. 

And yet, that sad, joyless city was the capital of a conquering 
nation. Only seventeen months before, the British had emerged 
victorious from mankind’s most terrible conflict. Their 
achievements, their courage in adversity then, had inspired an 
admiration such as the world had never before accorded them. 

The cost of their victory, however, had almost vanquished 
the British. Britain’s industry was crippled, her exchequer 
bankrupt, her once haughty pound sterling surviving only on 


Freedom at Midnight 

injections of American and Canadian dollars, her Treasury 
unable to pay the staggering debt she’d run up to finance the 
war. Foundries and factories were closing everywhere. Over 
two million Britons were unemployed. Coal production was 
lower than it had been a decade earlier and, as a result, every 
day, some part of Britain was without electric power for hours. 

For Londoners, the New Year beginning would be the eighth 
consecutive year they’d lived under severe rationing of almost 
every product they consumed: food, fuel, drinks, energy, shoes, 
clothing. ‘Starve and shiver’ had become the byword of a 
people who’d defeated Hitler proclaiming ‘V for Victory’ and 
‘Thumbs Up’. 

Only one family in fifteen had been able to find and afford 
a Christmas turkey for the holiday season just past. Many a 
child’s stocking had been empty that Christmas eve. The treas- 
ury had slapped a 100% purchase tax on toys. The word most 
frequently scrawled on the windows of London’s shops was 
‘No’: ‘No potatoes’, ‘No logs’, ‘No coal’, ‘No cigarettes’, ‘No 
meat’. Indeed, the reality confronting Britain that New Year’s 
morning had been captured in one cruel sentence by her great- 
est economist. ‘We are a poor nation/ John Maynard Keynes 
had told his countrymen the year before, ‘and we must learn 
to live accordingly.’ 

Yet, if Londoners did not have enough hot water that morn- 
ing to make a cup of tea with which to welcome the New 
Year, they had something else. They could, because they were 
English, lay claim to a blue and gold document which would 
guarantee their entry to almost a quarter of the earth’s surface, 
a British passport. Na other people in the world enjoyed such 
a privilege. That most extraordinary assemblage of dominions, 
territories, protectorates, associated states and colonies which 
was the British Empire, remained, on this New Year’s Day 
1947, largely intact. The lives of 560 million people, Tamils 
and Chinese, Bushmen and Hottentots, pre-Dravidian abor- 
igines and Melanesians, Australians and Canadians, were still 
influenced by the actions of those Englishmen shivering in 
their unheated London homes. They could, that morning, 


‘ A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue' 

claim domain over almost three hundred pieces of the earth’s 
surface from entities as small and as unknown as Bird Island, 
Bramble Cay and Wreck Reef to great, populous stretches of 
Africa and Asia. Britain’s proudest boast was still true: every 
time Big Ben’s chimes tolled out over the ruins of Central 
London that New Year’s. Day, at sunrise, somewhere in the 
British Empire, a Union Jack was riding up a flagstaff. 

No Caesar or Charlemagne ever presided over a comparable 
realm. For three centuries its scarlet stains spreading over the 
maps of the world had prompted the dreams of schoolboys, 
the avarice of her merchants, the ambitions of her adventurers. 
Its raw materials had fuelled the factories of the Industrial 
Revolution, and its territories furnished a protected market 
for their goods. ‘Heavy with gold, black with industrial soot, 
red with the blood of conquest , the Empire had made in its 
time a little island kingdom of less than 50 million people the 
most powerful nation on earth, and London the capital of the 

Now, almost furtively, a black Austin Princess slipped down 
the deserted streets of that capital towards the heart of the 
city. As it passed Buckingham Palace and turned on to the 
Mall, its sole passenger stared moodily out at the imperial 
boulevard passing before his eyes. How often, he reflected, had 
Britain celebrated the triumphs of empire along its course. Half 
a century earlier, on 22 June 1897* Queen Victoria s carriage had 
come clattering down its length for the festival that had marked 
its zenith, her Diamond Jubilee. Gurkhas, Sikhs, Pathans, 
Hausas from Africa’s Gold Coast, the Fuzzy Wuzzies of the 
Sudan, Cypriots, Jamaicans, Malaysians, Hong Kong Chinese, 
Borneo headhunters, Australians and New Zealanders, South 
Africans and Canadians had all in their turn marched down 
the Mall to the plaudits of that energetic race to whose empire 
they’d belonged. All that had represented an extraordinary 
dream for those Englishmen and the generations that had 
succeeded them along the Mall. Now even that was to be 
snatched away from them. The age of imperialism was dead 
and it was in recognition of that historic inevitability that the 


Freedom at Midnight 

black Austin Princess was running its lonely course down the 
avenue which had witnessed so many of its grandiose cere- 

Its passenger sank back in his seat. His eyes, this holiday 
morning, should have been gazing on a different sight, a sun- 
drenched Swiss ski slope. An urgent summons, however, had 
interrupted his Christmas vacation and sent him to Zurich 
where he’d boarded the RAF aircraft which had just deposited 
him at Northolt Airport. 

His car passed Parliament Street and drove down a narrow 
lane up to what was probably the most photographed doorway 
in the world. Number 10 Downing Street. For six years, the 
world had associated its simple wooden frame with the image 
of a man in a black homburg, a cigar in his mouth, a cane in 
his hands, fingers upthrust in a ‘V’ for Victory. Winston 
Churchill had fought two great battles while he’d lived in that 
house, one to defeat the Axis, the other to defend the British 

Now, however, a new Prime Minister waited inside 10 
Downing Street, a Socialist don whom Churchill had dispar- 
aged as 'a modest man with much to be modest about’. 

Clement Attlee and his Labour Party had come to office 
publicly committed to begin the dismemberment of the 
Empire. For Atdee, for England, that historic process had inevi- 
tably to begin by extending freedom to the vast, densely popu- 
lated land Britain still ruled from the Khyber Pass to Cape 
Comorin - India. That superb and shameful institution, the 
British Raj, was the cornerstone and justification of the Empire, 
its most remarkable accomplishment and its most constant 
care. India with its Bengal Lancers and its silk-robed Mah- 
arajas, its tiger hunts and its polo maidans, its pugree helmets 
and its chota pegs of whisky, its royal elephants caparisoned 
in gold and its starving sadhus, its mulligatawny soups and 
haughty memsahibs, had incarnated the imperial dream. The 
handsome rear-admiral stepping from his car had been called 
to to Downing Street to end that dream. 

Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mounfbatten, Viscount 

‘A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue ’ 


Mountbatten of Burma was, at 46, one of the most noted 
'^figures in England. He was a big man, over six feet tall, but 
not a trace of flab hung from his zealously exercised waist line. 
Despite the terrible burdens he’d carried in the past six years, 
the face, familiar to millions of the readers of his country’s 
penny press, was remarkably free of the scars of strain and 
tension. His features, so astonishingly regular that they seemed, 
almost, to have been conceived as a prototype of facial design, 
his undiminished shock of dark hair setting off his hazel eyes, 
conspired to make him seem a good five years younger than 
he was this January morning. 

Mountbatten knew well why he’d been summoned to 
London. Since his return from his post as Supreme Allied 
Commander South-east Asia, he’d been a frequent visitor to 
Downing Street as a consultant on the affairs of the nations 
which had fallen under SEAC’s command. On his last visit, 
however, the Prime Minister’s questions had quickly focused 
on a nation that had not been part of his theatre of operations, 
India. The young admiral had suddenly had a ‘very nasty, very 
uneasy feeling’. His premonition had been justified. Attlee 
intended to name him Viceroy of India. The Viceroy’s was the 
most important post in the empire, the office from which a 
long succession of Englishmen had held domain over the desti- 
nies of a fifth of mankind. Mountbatten’s task, however, would 
not be to rule India from that office. His assignment would 
be one of the most painful an Englishman could be asked to 
undertake, to give it up. 

Mountbatten wanted no part of the job. He entirely 
endorsed the idea that the time had come for Britain to leave 
India. His heart however, rebelled at the thought that it would 
be he who would be called on to sever the ancient links binding 
Britain and the bulwark of her empire. To discourage Attlee 
he had thrown up a whole series of demands, major and minor, 
from the number of secretaries he’d be allowed to take with 
him to the aircraft, the York MW 102 he’d employed in South- 
east Asia, which would be placed at his disposal. Attlee, to his 
dismay, had agreed them all. Now, entering the Cabinet Room, 


Freedom at Midnight 

the admiral still hoped somehow to resist Attlee’s efforts to 
force the Indian assignment on him. 

With his sallow complexion, his indifferently trimmed 
moustache, his shapeless tweed suits which seemed blissfully 
ignorant of a pressing iron’s caress, the man waiting for 
Mountbatten exuded in his demeanour something of that grey 
and dreary city through which the admiral’s car had just 
passed. That he, a Labour Prime Minister, should want a 
glamorous, polo-playing member of the royal family to fill 
the most critical position in the empire that Labour was 
pledged to dismantle, seemed, at first sight, an incongruous 

There was much more to Mountbatten, however, than his 
public image indicated. The decorations on his naval uniform 
were proof of that. The public might consider him a pillar 
of the establishment; the establishment themselves tended to 
regard Mountbatten and his wife as dangerous radicals. His 
command in South-east Asia had given him a knowledge of 
Asian nationalist movements few in England could match. He 
had dealt with the supporters of Ho Chi Minh in Indo-China, 
Sukarno in Indonesia, Aung San in Burma, Chinese Commu- 
nists in Malaya, unruly trade unionists in Singapore. Realizing 
they represented Asia’s future, he had sought accommodations 
with them rather than, as his staff and Allies had urged, trying 
to suppress them. The nationalist movement with which he 
would have to deal if he went to India was the oldest and 
most unusual of them all. In a quarter of a century of inspired 
agitation and protest, its leadership had forced history’s great- 
est empire to the decision Attlee’s Party had taken: let Britain 
leave India in good time rather than be driven out by the 
forces of history and armed rebellion. 

The Prime Minister began by reviewing the Indian scene. 
The Indian situation, he said, was deteriorating with every 
passing day and the time for urgent decision was at hand. It 
was one of the paradoxes of history that at this critical juncture, 
when Britain was at last ready to give India her freedom, she 
could not find a way to do so. What should have been Britain’s 

‘A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue ’ 


finest hour in India seemed destined to become a nightmare 
of unsurpassable horror. She had conquered and ruled India 
with what was, by colonial standards, relatively little blood- 
shed. Her leaving it threatened to produce an explosion of 
violence that would dwarf in scale and magnitude anything 
India had experienced in three and a half centuries. 

The root of the problem was the age-old antagonism 
between India’s 300 million Hindus and 100 million Moslems. 
Sustained by tradition, by antipathetic religions, by economic 
differences, subtly exacerbated through the years by Britain’s 
own policy of Divide and Rule, their conflict had reached 
boiling point. The Moslem leaders now demanded that Britain 
rip apart the unity she had so painstakingly erected to give 
them an Islamic state of their own. The cost of denying them 
their state, they warned, would be the bloodiest civil war in 
Asian history. 

Just as determined to resist their demands were the leaders 
of the Congress Party representing most of India’s 300 million 
Hindus. To them, the division of the sub-continent would be 
a mutilation of their historic homeland almost sacrilegious in 
its nature. 

Britain was trapped between those two apparently irrecon- 
cilable positions, sinking slowly into a quagmire from which 
she seemed unable to extricate herself. Time and again British 
efforts to resolve the problem had failed. So desperate had 
the situation oecome, that the present Viceroy, an honest, 
forthright soldier, Field-Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell, had just 
submitted to the Attlee government his last-ditch recommen- 
dations. Should all else fail, he suggested the British announce 
‘we propose to withdraw from India in our own method and 
in our own time and with due regard to our own interests; 
and that we will regard any attempt to interfere with our 
programme as an act of war which we will meet with all the 
resources at our command.’ 

Britain and India, Attlee told Mountbatten, were heading 
towards a major disaster. The situation could not be allowed 
to go on. Wavell was a man of painfully few words, and, Attlee 


Freedom at Midnight 

said, he’d been unable to establish any real contact with his 
loquacious Indian interlocutors. 

A fresh face, a fresh approach was desperately needed if a 
crisis were to be averted. Each morning, Attlee revealed, 
brought its batch of cables to the India Office announcing an 
outburst of wanton savagery in some new corner of India. It 
was, he indicated, Mountbatten’s solemn duty to take the post 
he’d been offered/ 

A sense of foreboding had been filling Mountbatten as he 
listened to the Prime Minister’s words. He still thought India 
was ‘an absolutely hopeless proposition’. He liked and admired 
Wavell, with whom he’d often discussed India’s problems 
during his regular visits to Delhi as Supreme Allied Com- 
mander in South-east Asia. 

Wavell had all the right ideas, Mountbatten thought. If he 
couldn’t do it, what’s the point of my trying to take it on? Yet 
he was beginning to understand there was no escape. He was 
going to be forced to accept a job in which the risk of failure 
was enormous and in which he could easily shatter the brilliant 
reputation he’d brought out of the war. 

If Attlee was going to force it on him, however, Mountbatten 
was determined to impose on the Prime Minister the political 
conditions that would give him at least some hopes of success. 
His talks with Wavell had given him an idea what they were. 

* Although Mountbatten didn’t know it, the idea of sending him to India 
had been suggested to Attlee by the man at the Prime Minister’s side, his 
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps. It had come up at a secret 
conversation in London in December, between Cripps and Krishna Menon, 
an outspoken Indian left-winger and intimate of the Congress leader Jawa- 
harlal Nehru. Menon had suggested to Cripps and Nehru that Congress saw 
little hope of progress in India so long as Wavell was Viceroy. In response 
to a query from the British leader, he had advanced the name of a man Nehru 
held in the highest regard, Louis Mountbatten. Aware that Mountbatten’s 
usefulness would be destroyed if India’s Moslem leaders learned of the genesis 
of his appointment the two men had agreed to reveal the details of their talk 
to no one. Menon revealed the details of his conversation with Cripps in a 
series of conversations with one of the authors in New Delhi in February 
1973> a year before his death. 

‘ A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue ’ 


He would not accept, he told the Prime Minister, unless the 
government agreed to make an unequivocal public announce- 
ment of the precise date on which British rule in India would 
terminate. Only that, Mountbatten felt, would convince India’s 
sceptical intelligentsia that Britain was really leaving and infuse 
her leaders with the sense of urgency needed to get them into 
realistic negotiations/ 

Second, he demanded something no other Viceroy had ever 
dreamed of asking, full powers to carry out his assignment 
without reference to London and, above all, without constant 
interference from London. The Attlee government could 
give the young admiral his final destination but he, and he 
alone, was going to set his course and run the ship along the 

‘Surely,’ Attlee asked, ‘you’re not asking for plenipotentiary 
powers above His Majesty’s Government, are you?’ 

‘I am afraid, Sir,’ answered Mountbatten, ‘that that is exactly 
what I am asking. How can I possibly negotiate with the Cabi- 
net constantly breathing down my neck?’ 

A stunned silence followed his words. Mountbatten watched 
with satisfaction as the nature of his breathtaking demand 
registered on the Prime Minister’s face, hoping, as he did, that 
it would prompt Attlee to withdraw his offer. 

Instead, the Prime Minister indicated with a sigh his willing- 
ness to accept even that. An hour later, shoulders sagging, 
Mountbatten emerged from the portal of Downing Street. He 
knew he was condemned to become India’s last Viceroy, the 
executioner, in a sense, of his countrymen’s fondest imperial 

Getting back into his car, a strange thought struck him. It 
was exactly seventy years, almost to the hour, from the moment 
his own great-grandmother had been proclaimed Empress of 
India on a plain outside Delhi. India’s princes, assembled for 
the occasion, had begged the heavens that day that Queen 

* Wavell too had recommended a time limit to Attlee during a London visit 
in December 1946. 

io Freedom at Midnight 

Victoria’s ‘power and sovereignty’ might ‘remain steadfast 

Now, on this New Year’s morning one of her great- 
grandsons had initiated the process which would fix the date 
on which ‘forever’ would come to an end. 


History’s most grandiose accomplishments can sometimes 
have the most banal of origins. Great Britain was set on the 
road to the great colonial adventure for five miserable shillings. 
They represented the increase in the price of a pound of pepper 
proclaimed by the Dutch privateers who controlled the spice 

Incensed at what they considered a wholly unwarranted 
gesture, twenty- four merchants of the City of London gathered 
on the afternoon of 24 September 1599 in a decrepit building 
on Leadenhall Street. Their purpose was to found a modest 
trading firm with an initial capital of £72,000 subscribed by 
125 shareholders. Only the simplest of concerns, profit, inspired 
their enterprise which, expanded and transformed, would ulti- 
mately become the most noteworthy creation of the age of 
imperialism, the British Raj. 

The Company received its official sanction on 31 December 
1599, when Queen Elizabeth I signed a royal charter assigning 
it exclusive trading rights with all countries beyond the Cape 
of Good Hope for an initial period of fifteen years. Eight 
months later, a 500-ton galleon named the Hector dropped 
anchor in the little port of Surat, north of Bombay. It was 24 
August 1600. The British had arrived in India. Their initial 
landing was a modest one. It came in the solitary figure of 
William Hawkins, Captain of the Hector, a dour old seaman 
who was more pirate than explorer. Hawkins marched off into 
the interior, prepared to find rubies as big as pigeons’ eggs; 
endless stands of pepper, ginger, indigo, cinnamon; trees whose 
leaves were so enormous that the shade they cast could cover 
an entire family, potions derived from elephants’ testicles to 
give him eternal youth. 

l A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue ’ 11 

There was little of that India along the Captain’s march to 
Agra. There, however, his encounter with the great Moghul 
compensated for the hardships of his journey. He found him- 
self face to face with a sovereign beside whom Queen Elizabeth 
appeared the ruler of a provincial hamlet. Reigning over 70 
million subjects, the Emperor Jehangir was the world’s richest 
and most powerful monarch, the fourth of India’s 
great Moghul rulers. 

The first Englishman to reach his court was greeted with a 
gesture which might have disconcerted the 125 worthy share- 
holders of the East India Trading Company. The Moghul made 
him a member of the Royal Household and offered him as a 
welcoming gift the most beautiful girl in his harem, an 
Armenian Christian. 

Fortunately, benefits of a nature more likely to inspire his 
employer’s esteem than the enrichment of his sex life also grew 
out of Captain Hawkins’ arrival in Agra. Jehangir signed an 
imperial firman authorizing the East India Company to open 
trading depots north of Bombay. Its success was rapid and 
impressive. Soon, two ships a month were unloading moun- 
tains of spices, gum, sugar, raw silk and Muslin cotton on the 
docks along the Thames and sailing off with holds full of 
English manufactures. A deluge of dividends, some of them 
as high as 200%, came pouring down on the firm’s fortunate 

The British, generally, were welcomed by the native rulers 
and population. Unlike the zealous Spaniards who were 
conquering South America in the name of a redeeming God, 
the British stressed that it was in the name of another God, 
Mammon, that they had come to India. ‘Trade not territory’, 
the Company’s officers never ceased repeating, was their policy. 

Inevitably, however, as their trading activities grew, the 
Company’s officers became enmeshed in local politics and 
forced, in order to protect their expanding commerce, to inter- 
vene in the squabbles of the petty sovereigns on whose terri- 
tories they operated. Thus began the irreversible process which 
would lead England to conquer India almost by inadvertence. 


Freedom at Midnight 

On 23 June 1757, marching through a drenching rainfall at the 
head of 900 Englishmen of the 39th Foot and 2000 Indian 
sepoys, an audacious general named Robert Clive routed the 
army of a troublesome Nawab in the rice paddies outside a 
Bengali village called Plassey. 

Clive’s victory opened the gates of northern India. With it, 
the British conquest of India truly started. Their merchants 
gave way to the builders of empire; and territory, not trade, 
became the primary concern of the British in India. 

The century that followed was one of conquest. Although 
they were specifically instructed by London to avoid ‘schemes 
of conquest and territorial expansion’, a succession of 
ambitious governor generals relentlessly embraced the oppo- 
site policy. In less than a century a company of traders was 
metamorphosed into a sovereign power, its accountants and 
traders into generals and governors, its race for dividends into 
a struggle for imperial authority. Without having set out to do 
so, Britain had become the successor to the Moghul Emperors. 

From the outset, her intent was always one day to relinquish 
the possessions she had so inadvertently acquired. As early as 
1818, the Marquess of Hastings noted: ‘A time, not very remote, 
will arrive when England will, on sound principles of policy, 
wish to relinquish the domination which she has gradually and 
unintentionally assumed over this country.’ Empires, however, 
were more naturally acquired than disposed of and the 
moment foreseen by Hastings was to be considerably more 
remote than the Marquess might have imagined. 

British rule nonetheless brought India benefits of consider- 
able magnitude, Pax Britannica and reasonable facsimiles of 
Britain’s own legal, administrative and educational insti- 
tutions. Above all, it gave India the magnificent gift which was 
to become the common bond of its diverse peoples and the 
conduit of their revolutionary aspirations, the English 

The first manifestation of those aspirations came in the 
savage Mutiny in 1857. Its most important result was an abrupt 
change in the manner in which Britain governed India. After 

4 A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue ’ 


258 years of fruitful activities, the Honourable East India Com- 
pany’s existence was terminated. Responsibility for the destiny 
of 300 million Indians was transferred to the hands of a 39- 
year-old woman whose tubby figure would incarnate the 
vocation of the British race to dominate the world, Queen 
Victoria. Henceforth, Britain’s authority was to be exercised 
by the crown, represented in India by a kind of nominated 
king ruling a fifth of humanity, the Viceroy. 

With that change began the period the world would most 
often associate with the British Indian experience, the Vic- 
torian era. Its predominant philosophy was a concept fre- 
quently enunciated by the man who was its self-appointed 
poet laureate - Rudyard Kipling - that white Englishmen were 
uniquely fitted to rule ‘lesser breeds without the law’. The 
responsibility for governing India, Kipling proclaimed, had 
been ‘placed by the inscrutable decree of providence upon the 
shoulders of the British race’. 

Ultimately, responsibility was exercised at any given time 
by a little band of brothers, 2000 members of the Indian Civil 
Service, the ICS, and 10,000 British officers of the Indian 
Army. Their authority over 300 million people was sustained 
by 60,000 British soldiers and 200,000 men of the Indian 
Army. No statistics could measure better than those the nature 
of Britain’s rule in India after 1857 or the manner in which 
the Indian masses were long prepared to accept it. 

The India of those men was that picturesque, romantic India 
of Kipling’s tales. Theirs was the India of gentlemen officers 
in plumed shakos riding at the head of their turbaned sepoys; 
of district magistrates lost in the torrid wastes of the Deccan; 
of Sumptuous imperial balls in the Himalayan summer capital 
of Simla; cricket matches on the manicured lawns of Calcutta’s 
Bengal Club; polo games on the sunburnt plains of Rajasthan; 
tiger hunts in Assam; young men sitting down to dinner in 
black ties in a tent in the middle of the jungle, solemnly 
proposing their toast in port to the King Emperor while jackals 
howled in the darkness around them; officers in scarlet tunics 
pursuing rebellious Pathan tribesmen in the sleet or unbearable 


Freedom at Midnight 

heat of the Frontier; the India of a caste unassailably certain 
of its superiority, sipping whiskies and soda on the veranda 
of its Europeans Only clubs. Those men were, generally, the 
products of families of impeccable breeding but less certain 
wealth; the offspring of good Anglican country churchmen; 
talented second sons of the landed aristocracy; sons of school- 
masters, classics professors and above all of the previous gener- 
ation of the British in India. They mastered on the playing 
fields and in the classrooms of Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, 
Haileybury, the disciplines that would fit them to rule an 
empire: excellence at ‘games’, a delight in ‘manly pursuits’, the 
ability to absorb the whack of a headmaster’s cane or declaim 
the Odes of Horace and the verses of Homer. ‘India’, noted 
James S. Mill, ‘was a vast system of outdoor relief for Britain’s 
upper classes.’ 

It represented challenge and adventure, and its boundless 
spaces an arena in which England’s young men could find a 
fulfilment their island’s more restricted shores might deny 
them. They arrived on the docks of Bombay at nineteen or 
twenty, barely able to raise a stubble on their chins. They went 
home thirty-five or forty years later, their bodies scarred by 
bullets, by disease, a panther’s claws or a fall on the polo field, 
their faces ravaged by too much sun and too much whisky, 
but proud of having lived their part of a romantic legend. 

A young man’s adventure usually began in the theatrical 
confusion of Bombay’s Victoria Station. There, under its red 
brick neo-Gothic arches, he discovered for the first time the 
face of the country in which he’d chosen to spend his life. It was 
usually a shock, a whirlpool of frantically scurrying, shoving, 
shouting human beings, darting in and out among jumbles of 
cases, valises, bundles, sacks, bales, all scattered in the halls of 
the station without any apparent regard for order. The heat, the 
crisp smell of spices and urine evaporating in the sun were 
overwhelming. Men in sagging dhotis and flapping night shirts, 
women in saris, bare arms and feet jangling with the gold 
bracelets on their wrists and ankles, Sikh soldiers in scarlet 
turbans, emaciated sadhus in orange and yellow loincloths, 

l A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue *5 

deformed children and beggars thrusting out their stunted 
limbs for baksheesh, all assailed him. The relief of a young 
lieutenant or newly appointed officer of the ICS on 1 b ° ard ^ 
the dark green cars of the Frontier Mail or the Hyderabad 
Express was usually enormous. Inside, behind the curtains of 
the first-class carriages, a familiar world waited, a world of 
deep brown upholstered seats and a dining-car with fresh whi e 
linen and champagne chilling in silver buckets; above all, a 
world in which the only Indian face he was likely to encounter 
was that of the conductor collecting his tickets. That was the 
first lesson a young officer learned. England ran India, but the 
English dwelt apart. 

A harsh schooling awaited the empire s young servants at 
the end of their first passage to India. They were sent to remote 
posts, covered by primitive roads and jungle tracks, inhabite , 
if at all, by only a few Europeans. By the time they were 
twenty-four or twenty-five, they often found themselves with 
sole responsibility for handing down justice to and adminis- 
tering the lives of a million or more human beings, in areas 

sometimes larger than Scotland. 

His apprenticeship in those remote districts eventually quali- 
fied a young officer to take his privileged place in one of those 
green and pleasant islands from which the aristocracy of the 
Raj ran India, ‘cantonments’, golden ghettos of British rule 
appended like foreign bodies to India’s major cities. 

Inevitably, each enclave included its green expanse of 
garden, its slaughterhouse, its bank, its shops and a squat stone 
church, a proud little replica of those in Dorset or Surrey. Its 
heart was always the same: an institution that seemed to grow 
up wherever more than two Englishmen gathered, a club. 
There, in the cool of the afternoon, the British of the canton- 
ment could gather to play tennis on their well-kept grass 
courts, or slip into white flannels for a cricket match. At the 
sacred hour of sundown, they sat out on their cool lawns : or 
on their rambling verandas while white-robed servants glided 
past with their ‘sundowners’, the first whisky of the evening. 

The parties and receptions in imperial India’s principal cities 

16 Freedom at Midnight 

-Bombay, Calcutta, Lahore, Delhi, Simla - were lavish affairs 
Everyone with any standing had a ballroom and a drawing- 
room at least eighty feet long,’ wrote one grande dame who 
ived in Victorian India. ‘In those days, there were none of 
those horrible buffets where people go to a table with a plate 
and stand around eating with whomsoever they choose The 
average private dinner was for thirty-five or forty with a servant 
tor each guest. Shopkeepers and commercial people were never 
invited nor, of course, did one ever see an Indian socially, 
anywhere. 7 

‘Nothing was as important as precedence and the deadly sin 
was to ignore it. Ah, the sudden arctic air that could sweep 
over a dinner party if the wife of an ICS joint secretary should 
find herself seated below an army officer of rank inferior to 
that of her husband.' 

Much of the tone of Victorian India was set by the 'mem- 
fu ’ 1 the Bntlsh w 'ves. To a large extent, the social separation 
of the English and the Indians was their doing. Their purpose 
perhaps, was to shield their men from the exotic temptations 
ot their Indian sisters, a temptation to which the first genera- 
tions of Englishmen in India had succumbed with zest, leaving 

behind a new Anglo-Indian society suspended between two 

The great pastime of the British in India was sport. A lbve of 
cricket, tennis, squash and hockey would be, with the English 
language, the most enduring heritage they would leave behind 
Coif was introduced in Calcutta in 1829, 30 years before it 
reached New York, and the world’s highest course laid out in 
the Himalayas at 11,000 feet. No golf bag was considered more 
chic on those courses than one made of an elephant’s penis - 
provided, of course, its owner had shot the beast himself. 

The British played in India but they died there, too, in very 
great numbers, often young. Every cantonment church had its 
adjacent graveyard to which the little community might carry 
its regular flow of dead, victims of India’s cruel climate, her 
peculiar hazards, her epidemics of malaria, cholera, jungle 
fever. No more poignant account of the British in India was 

‘A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue’ 17 

ever written than that inscribed upon the tombstones of those 

Even in death India was faithful to its legends. Lt St John 
Shawe, of the Royal Horse Artillery, ‘died of wounds received 
from a panther on 12 May 1866, at Chindwara’. Maj. Archibald 
Hibbert, died 15 June 1902, near Raipur after ‘being gored by 
a bison’, and Harris McQuaid was ‘trampled by an elephant’ 
at Saugh, 6 June 1902. Thomas Henry Butler, an Accountant 
in the Public Works Department, Jubbulpore, had the misfor- 
tune in 1897 to be ‘eaten by a tiger in Tilman Forest’. 

Indian service had its bizarre hazards. Sister Mary of the 
Church of England Foreign Missionary Services died at the 
age of 33, ‘Killed while teaching at the Mission School Sinka 
when a beam eaten through by white ants fell on her head’. 
Major General Henry Marion Durand of the Royal Engineers, 
met his death on New Year’s Day 1871 ‘in consequence of 
injuries received from a fall from a Howdah while passing his 
elephant through Durand Gate, Tonk’. Despite his engineering 
background, the general had failed that morning to reach a 
just appreciation of the difference in height between the arch- 
way and his elephant. There proved to be room under it for 
the elephant, but none for him. 

No sight those graveyards offered was sadder, nor more 
poignantly revealing of the human price the British paid for 
their Indian adventure, than their rows upon rows of under- 
sized graves. They crowded every cemetery in India in appalling 
numbers. They were the graves of children, children and 
infants killed in a climate for which they had not been bred, by 
diseases they would never have known in their native England. 

Sometimes a lone tomb, sometimes three or four in a row, 
those of an entire family wiped out by cholera or jungle fever, 
the epitaphs upon those graves were a parents’ heartbreak 
frozen in stone: ‘In memory of poor little Willy, the beloved 
and only child of Bomber William Talbot and Margaret Ade- 
laide Talbot, the Royal Horse Brigade, Born Delhi 14 December 
1862. Died Delhi 17 July 1863.’ 

In Asigarh, two stones side by side offer for eternity the 


Freedom at Midnight 

measure of what England’s glorious imperial adventure meant 
to many an ordinary Englishman. ‘19 April 1845. Alexander, 
7-month-old son of Conductor Johnson and Martha Scott. 
Died of cholera,’ reads the first. The second, beside it, reads: 
‘30 April 1845, William John, 4-year-old son of Conductor 
Johnson and Martha Scott. Died of cholera.’ Under them, on 
a larger stone, their grieving parents chiselled a last farewell: 

One blessing, one sire, one womb 
Their being gave. 

They had one mortal sickness 

And share one grave 

Far from an England they never knew. 

Obscure clerks or dashing blades, those generations of Britons 
policed and administered India as no one before them 

Their rule was paternalistic, that of the old public school- 
master disciplining an unruly band of boys, forcing on them 
the education he was sure was good for them. With an 
occasional exception they were able and incorruptible, deter- 
mined to administer India in its own best interests - but it 
was always they who decided what those interests were, not 
the Indians they governed. 

Their great weakness was the distance from which they exer- 
cised their authority, the terrible smugness setting them apart 
from those they ruled. Never was that attitude of racial superi- 
ority summed up more succinctly than by a former officer of 
the Indian Civil Service in a parliamentary debate at the turn 
of the century. There was, he said, ‘a cherished conviction 
shared by every Englishman in India, from the highest to the 
lowest, by the planter’s assistant in his lonely bungalow and 
by the editor in the full light of his presidency town, from the 
Chief Commissioner in charge of an important province to 
the Viceroy upon his throne - the conviction in every man 
that he belongs to a race which God has destined to govern 
and subdue’. 


‘A Race Destined to Govern and Subdue ’ 

The massacre of 680,000 members of that race in the trenches 
of World War I wrote an end to the legend of a certain India. 
A whole generation of young men who might have patrolled 
the Frontier, administered the lonely districts or galloped their 
polo ponies down the long maidans was left behind in Flanders 
fields. From 1918 recruiting for the Indian Civil Service became 
increasingly difficult. Increasingly, Indians were accepted into 
the ranks both of the civil service and the officer corps. 

On New Year’s Day 1947, barely a thousand British members 
of the Indian Civil Service remained in India, still somehow 
holding 400 million people in their administrative grasp. They 
were the last standard bearers of an elite that had outlived its 
time, condemned at last by a secret conversation in London 
and the inexorable currents of history. 


‘ Walk Alone, Walk Alone ’ 


Srirampur, Noakhali, New Year’s Day, 1947 

Six thousand miles from Downing Street, in a village of the 
Gangetic Delta above the Bay of Bengal, an elderly man 
stretched out on the dirt floor of a peasant’s hut. It was exactly 
twelve noon. As he did every day at that hour, he reached up 
for the dripping wet cotton sack that an assistant offered him. 
Dark splotches of the mud packed inside it oozed through the 
bag’s porous folds. The man carefully patted the sack on to 
his abdomen. Then he took a second, smaller bag and stuck 
it on his bald head. 

He seemed, lying there on the floor, a fragile little creature. 
The appearance was deceptive. That wizened 77-year-old man 
beaming out from under his mudpack had done more to 
topple the British Empire than any man alive. It was because 
of him that a British Prime Minister had finally been obliged 
to send Queen Victoria’s great-grandson to New Delhi to find 
a way to give India her freedom. 

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an unlikely revolution- 
ary, the gentle prophet of the world’s most extraordinary liber- 
ation movement. Beside him, carefully polished, were the 
dentures he wore only when eating and the steel-rimmed 
glasses through which he usually peered out at the world. He 
was a tiny man, barely five feet tall, weighing 114 pounds; all 
arms and legs like an adolescent whose trunk has yet to rival 
the growth of his limbs. Nature had meant Gandhi’s face to 
be ugly. His ears flared out from his oversized head like the 
handles of a sugar bowl. His nose buttressed by squat, flaring 
nostrils thrust its heavy beak over a sparse white moustache. 
Without his dentures, his full lips collapsed over his toothless 

‘ Walk Alone , Walk Alone ’ 


gums. Yet Gandhi’s face radiated a peculiar beauty because it 
was constantly animated, reflecting with the quickly shifting 
patterns of a magic lantern his changing moods and his impish 

To a century fraught with violence, Gandhi had offered an 
alternative, his doctrine of ahimsa - non-violence. He had 
used it to mobilize the masses of India to drive England from 
the sub-continent with a moral crusade instead of an armed 
rebellion, prayers instead of machine-gun fire, disdainful 
silence instead of the fracas of terrorists’ bombs. 

While Western Europe had echoed to the harangues of rant- 
ing demagogues and shrieking dictators, Gandhi had stirred the 
multitudes of the world’s most populous area without raising 
his voice. It was not with the promise of power or fortune that he 
had summoned his followers to his banner, but with a warning: 
‘Those who are in my company must be ready to sleep upon the 
bare floor, wear coarse clothes, get up at unearthly hours, subsist 
on uninviting, simple food, even clean their own toilets. Instead 
of gaudy uniforms and jangling medals, he had dressed his fol- 
lowers in clothes of coarse, homespun cotton. That costume, 
however, had been as instantly identifiable, as psychologically 
effective in welding together those who wore it, as the brown or 
black shirts of Europe’s dictators. 

His means of communicating with his followers were primi- 
tive. He wrote much of his correspondence himself in long- 
hand, and he talked: to his disciples, to prayer meetings, to 
the caucuses of his Congress Party. He employed none of the 
techniques for conditioning the masses to the dictates of a 
demagogue or a clique of ideologues. Yet, his message had 
penetrated a nation bereft of modern communications because 
Gandhi had a genius for the simple gesture that spoke to India s 
soul. Those gestures were all unorthodox. Paradoxically, in 
a land ravaged by cyclical famine, where hunger had been a 
malediction for centuries, the most devastating tactic Gandhi 
had devised was the simple act of depriving himself of food — 
a fast. He had humbled Great Britain by sipping water and 
bicarbonate of soda. 


Freedom at Midnight 

God-obsessed India had recognized in his frail silhouette, 
in the instinctive brilliance of his acts, the promise of a 
Mahatma — a Great Soul — and followed where he’d led. He 
was indisputably one of the galvanic figures of his century. To 
his followers, he was a saint. To the British bureaucrats whose 
hour of departure he’d hastened, he was a conniving politician, 
a bogus Messiah whose non-violent crusade always ended in 
violence and whose fasts unto death always stopped short of 
death’s door. Even a man as kind-hearted as Wavell detested 
him as a ‘malevolent old politician . . . Shrewd, obstinate, 
domineering, double-tongued’, with ‘little true saintliness in 

Few of the English who’d negotiated with Gandhi had liked 
him; fewer still had understood him. Their puzzlement was 
understandable. He was a strange blend of great moral prin- 
ciples and quirky obsessions. He was quite capable of interrupt- 
ing their serious political discussions with a discourse on the 
benefits of sexual continence or a daily salt and water 

Wherever Gandhi went, it was said, there was the capital of 
India. Its capital this New Year’s Day was the tiny Bengali 
village of Srirampur where the Mahatma lay under his 
mudpacks, exercising his authority over an enormous con- 
tinent without the benefit of radio, electricity or running water, 
thirty miles by foot from the nearest telephone or telegraph 

The region of Noakhali in which Srirampur was set, was 
one of the most inaccessible in India, a jigsaw of tiny islands 
in the waterlogged delta formed by the Ganges and the 
Brahmaputra rivers. Barely forty miles square, it was a dense 
thicket of two and a half million human beings, 80% of them 
Moslems. They lived crammed into villages divided by canals, 
creeks and streams, reached by rowing-boat, by hand-poled 
ferries, by rope, log or bamboo bridges swaying danger- 
ously over the rushing waters which poured through the 

New Year’s Day 1947 in Srirampur should have been an 


‘ Walk Alone , Walk Alone’ 

occasion of intense satisfaction for Gandhi. He stood that day 
on the brink of achieving the goal he’d fought for most of his 
life: India’s freedom. 

Yet, as he approached the glorious climax of his struggle, 
Gandhi was a desperately unhappy man. The reasons for his 
unhappiness were everywhere manifest in the little village in 
which he’d made his camp. Srirampur had been one of the 
unpronounceable names figuring on the reports arriving 
almost daily on Clement Attlee’s desk from India. Inflamed 
by fanatical leaders, by reports of Hindus killing their co- 
religionists in Calcutta, its Moslems, like Moslems all across 
Noakhali, had suddenly turned on the Hindu minority that 
shared the village with them. They had slaughtered, raped, 
pillaged, and burned, forcing their neighbours to eat the flesh 
of their Sacred Cows, sending others fleeing for safety across 
the rice paddies. Half the huts in Srirampur were blackened 
ruins. Even the shack in which Gandhi lay had been partially 
destroyed by fire. 

The Noakhali outbursts were isolated sparks but the passions 
which had ignited them could easily become a firestorm to set 
the whole sub-continent ablaze. Those horrors, the outbursts 
which had preceded them in Calcutta and those which had 
followed to the north-west in Bihar where, with equal brutality, 
a Hindu majority had turned on a Moslem minority, explained 
the anxiety in Attlee’s conversation with the man he urgently 
wanted to dispatch to New Delhi as Viceroy. 

They also explained Gandhi’s presence in Srirampur. The 
fact that, as their hour of triumph approached, his countrymen 
should have turned on each other in communal frenzy, broke 
Gandhi’s heart. They had followed him on the road to indepen- 
dence, but they had not understood the great doctrine he had 
enunciated to get them there, non-violence. Gandhi had a 
profound belief in his non-violent creed. The holocaust the 
world had just lived, the spectre of nuclear destruction now 
threatening it, were to Gandhi the conclusive proof that only 
non-violence could save mankind. It was his desperate desire 
that a new India should show Asia and the world this way out 


Freedom at Midnight 

of man’s dilemma. If his own people turned on the doctrines 
he’d lived by and used to lead them to freedom, what would 
remain of Gandhi’s hopes? It would be a tragedy that would 
turn independence into a worthless triumph. 

Another tragedy, too, threatened Gandhi. To tear India apart 
on religious lines would be to fly in the face of everything for 
which Gandhi stood. Every fibre of his being cried out against 
the division of his beloved country demanded by India’s Mos- 
lem politicians, and which many of its English rulers were now 
ready to accept. India’s people and faiths were, for Gandhi, as 
inextricably interwoven as the intricate patterns of an oriental 

‘You shall have to divide my body before you divide India,’ 
he had proclaimed again and again. 

He had come to the devastated village of Srirampur in search 
of his own faith and to find a way to prevent the disease from 
engulfing all India. ‘I see no light through the impenetrable 
darkness,’ he had cried in anguish as the first communal kill- 
ings had opened an abyss between India’s Hindu and Moslem 
communities. ‘Truth and non-violence to which I swear, and 
which have sustained me for fifty years, seem to fail to show 
the attributes I have ascribed to them.’ 

‘I have come here,’ he told his followers, ‘to discover a new 
technique and test the soundness of the doctrine which has 
sustained me and made my life worth living.’ 

For days, Gandhi wandered the village, talking to its inhabi- 
tants, meditating, waiting for the counsel of the ‘Inner Voice’ 
which had so often illuminated the way for him in times of 
crisis. Recently, his acolytes had noticed he was spending more 
and more time on a curious occupation: practising crossing 
the slippery, rickety, log bridges surrounding the village. 

That day, when he had finished with his mudpack, he called 
his followers to his hut. His ‘Inner Voice’ had spoken at last. 
As once ancient Hindu holy men had crossed their continent 
in barefoot pilgrimage to its sacred shrines, so he was going 
to set out on a Pilgrimage of Penance to the hate-wasted 
villages of Noakhali. In the next seven weeks, walking barefoot 

‘Walk Alone , Walk Alone ’ 


as a sign of his penitence, he would cover 116 miles, visiting 
4 7 of Noakhali’s villages. 

He, a Hindu, would go among those enraged Moslems, 
moving from village to village, from hut to hut, seeking to 
restore with the poultice of his presence Noakhali’s shattered 

Because this was a pilgrimage of penance, he decreed he 
wanted no other companion but God. Only four of his fol- 
lowers would accompany him. They would live on whatever 
charity the inhabitants of the villages they visited were ready 
to offer them. Let the politicians of his Congress Party and 
the Moslem League wrangle over India’s future in their endless 
Delhi debates, he said. It was, as it always had been, in India’s 
villages that the answers to her problems would have to be 
found. ‘This,’ he said, ‘would be his “last and greatest experi- 
ment.” If he could “rekindle the lamp of neighbourliness”, in 
those villages cursed by blood and bitterness, their example 
might inspire the whole nation.’ Here in Noakhali, he prayed, 
he could set alight again the torch of non-violence and conjure 
away the spectre of communal warfare which was haunting 

His party set out at dawn. Gandhi’s pretty nineteen-year-old 
great-niece Manu had put together his spartan kit: a pen and 
paper, a needle and thread, an earthen bowl and a wooden 
spoon, his spinning-wheel and his three gurus, a little ivory 
representation of the three monkeys who ‘hear no evil, see no 
evil, speak no evil’. She also packed in a sack the books that 
reflected the eclecticism of the man marching into the jungle: 
the Bhagavad-Gita , a Koran, the Practice and Precepts of Jesus , 
and a book of Jewish thoughts. 

With Gandhi at their head, the little band marched over the 
dirt paths, past the ponds and groves of betel and coconut 
palms to the rice paddies beyond. The villagers of Srirampur 
rushed for a last glimpse of this bent 77-year-old man striding 
off with his bamboo stave in search of a lost dream. 

As Gandhi’s party began to move out of sight across 
the harvested paddies, the villagers heard him singing one of 


Freedom at Midnight 

Rabindranath Tagore’s great poems set to music. It was one 
of the old leader’s favourites, and as he disappeared they fol- 
lowed the sound of his high-pitched, uneven voice drifting 
back across the paddies. 

‘If they answer not your call,’ he sang, ‘walk alone, walk 


The fraternal bloodshed Gandhi hoped to check had for cen- 
turies rivalled hunger as India’s sternest curse. The great epic 
poem of Hinduism, the Mahabharata , celebrated an appalling 
civil slaughter on the plains of Kurukshetra, north-west of 
Delhi, 2500 years before Christ. Hinduism itself had been 
brought to India by the Indo-European hordes descending 
from the north to wrest the sub-continent from its semi- 
aboriginal Dravidian inhabitants. Its sages had written their 
sacred vedas on the banks of the Indus centuries before Christ’s 

The faith of the Prophet had come much later, after the 
cohorts of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane had battered their 
way down the Khyber Pass to weaken the Hindu hold on the 
great Gangetic plain. For two centuries, the Moslem Moghul 
emperors had imposed their sumptuous and implacable rule 
over most of India, spreading in the wake of their legions the 
message of Allah, the One, the Merciful. 

The two great faiths thus planted on the sub-continent were 
as different as could be found among the manifestations of 
man’s eternal vocation to believe. Where Islam reposed on a 
man, the Prophet, and a precise text, the Koran, Hinduism 
was a religion without a founder, a revealed truth, a dogma, 
a structured liturgy or a churchly establishment. For Islam, 
the Creator stood apart from his creation, ordering and presid- 
ing over his work. To the Hindu, the Creator and his creation 
were one and indivisible, and God a kind of all pervading 
cosmic spirit to whose manifestations there would be no limit. 

The Hindu, as a result, worshipped God in almost any form 
he chose: in animals, ancestors, sages, spirits, natural forces. 


‘ Walk Mone y Walk Alone 

divine incarnations, the Absolute. He could find God mani- 
fested in snakes, phalli, water, fire, the planets and the stars. 

To the Moslem, on the contrary, there was but one God, 
Allah, and the Koran forbade the Faithful to represent him in 
ai^y shape or form. Idols and idolatry to the Moslem were 
abhorrent; paintings and statues blasphemous. A mosque was 
a spare, solemn place in which the only decorations permitted 
were abstract designs and the repeated representations of the 
99 names of God. 

Idolatry was Hinduism’s natural form of expression and a 
Hindu temple was the exact opposite of a mosque. It was a 
kind of spiritual shopping centre, a clutter of Goddesses with 
snakes coiling from their heads, six-armed Gods with fiery 
tongues, elephants with wings talking to the clouds, jovial little 
monkeys, dancing maidens and squat phallic symbols. 

Moslems worshipped in a body, prostrating themselves on 
the floor of the mosque in the direction of Mecca, chanting 
in unison their Koranic verses. A Hindu worshipped alone 
with only his thoughts linking him and the God he could select 
from a bewildering pantheon of three to three and a half 
million divinities. It was a jungle so complex that only a hand- 
ful of humans who’d devoted their lives to its study could find 
their way through it. At its core was a central trinity: Brahma, 
the Creator; Shiva, the Destroyer; Vishnu, the Preserver - posi- 
tive, negative, neutral forces, eternally in search, as their wor- 
shippers were supposed to be, of the perfect equilibrium, the 
attainment of the Absolute. Behind them were Gods and God- 
desses for the seasons, the weather, the crops, and the ailments 
of man, like Maryamma, the smallpox Goddess revered each 
year in a ritual strikingly similar to the Jewish Passover. 

The greatest barrier to Hindu-Moslem understanding, how- 
ever, was not metaphysical, but social. It was the system which 
ordered Hindu society, caste. According to Vedic scripture, 
caste originated with Brahma, the Creator. Brahmins, the high- 
est caste, sprang from his mouth; Kashtriayas, warriors and 
rulers, from his biceps; Vaishyas, traders and businessmen, 
from his thigh; Sudras, artisans and craftsmen, from his feet. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Below them, were the outcasts, the Untouchables who had not 
sprung from divine soil. 

The origins of the caste system, however, were notably less 
divine than those suggested by the Vedas. It had been a scheme 
employed by Hinduism’s Aryan founders to perpetuate the 
enslavement of India’s dark, Dravidian populations. The word 
for caste, varna , meant colour, and centuries later, the dark 
skins of India’s Untouchables gave graphic proof of the 
system’s real origins. 

The five original divisions had multiplied like cancer cells 
into almost 5000 sub-castes, 1886 for the Brahmins alone. Every 
occupation had its caste, splitting society into a myriad 
of closed guilds into which a man was condemned by his 
birth to work, live, marry and die. So precise were their 
definitions that an iron smelter was in a different caste to an 

Linked to the caste system was the second concept basic to 
Hinduism, reincarnation. A Hindu believed his body was just 
a temporary garment for his soul. Each life was only one of 
his soul’s many incarnations in its journey through eternity, 
a chain beginning and ending in some nebulous merger with 
the cosmos. The Karma, the accumulated good and evil of each 
mortal lifetime, was a soul’s continuing burden. It determined 
whether, in its next incarnation, that soul would move up or 
down in the hierarchy of caste. Caste had been a superb device 
to perpetuate India’s social inequities by giving them divine 
sanction. As the Church had counselled the peasants of the 
Middle Ages to forget the misery of their lives in the contem- 
plation of the hereafter, so Hinduism had for centuries coun- 
selled the miserable of India to accept their lot in humble 
resignation as the best assurance of a better destiny in their 
next incarnation. 

To the Moslems to whom Islam was a kind of brotherhood 
of the Faithful, that whole system was anathema. A generous, 
welcoming faith, Islam’s fraternal' embrace drew millions of 
converts to the mosques of India’s Moghul rulers. Inevitably, 
the vast majority of them were Untouchables, seeking in the 


‘Walk hlone y Walk Alone’ 

brotherhood of Islam an acceptance their own faith could offer 
them only in some distant incarnation. 

With the collapse of the Moghul Empire at the beginning 
of the eighteenth century, a martial Hindu renaissance spread 
across India, bringing with it a wave of Hindu-Moslem blood- 
shed. Britain’s conquering presence had forced its Pax Britan - 
nica on the warring sub-continent, but the mistrust and 
suspicion in which the two communities dwelt remained. The 
Hindus did not forget that the mass of Moslems were the 
descendants of Untouchables who’d fled Hinduism to escape 
their misery. Caste Hindus would not touch food in the pre- 
sence of a Moslem. A Moslem entering a Hindu kitchen would 
pollute it. The touch of a Moslem’s hand could send a Brahmin 
shrieking off to purify himself with hours of ritual ablutions. 

Hindus and Moslems shared the villages awaiting Gandhi’s 
visit in Noakhali, just as they shared the thousands of villages 
all through the northern tier of India in Bihar, the United 
Provinces, the Punjab. They dwelt, however, in geographically 
distinct neighbourhoods. The frontier was a road or path, 
frequently called the Middle Way. No Moslem would live on 
one side of it, no Hindu on the other. 

The two communities mixed socially, attending each other’s 
feasts, sharing the poor implements with which they worked. 
Their intermingling tended to end there. Intermarriage was 
almost unknown. The communities drew their water from 
separate wells and a caste Hindu would choke before sipping 
water from the Moslem well perhaps yards from his own. In 
the Punjab, what few scraps of knowledge Hindu children 
acquired came from the village Pandit who taught them to 
write a few words in Punjabi in mud with wheat stalks. The 
same village’s Moslem children would get their bare education 
from a sheikh in the mosque reciting the Koran in a different 
language, Urdu. Even the primitive drugs of cow’s urine and 
herbs with which they struggled against the same diseases, were 
based on different systems of natural medicine. 

To those social and religious differences, had been added 
an even more divisive, more insidious distinction, economic. 


Freedom at Midnight 

The Hindus had been far swifter than the Moslems to seize 
the opportunities British education and Western thought had 
placed before India. As a result, while the British had been 
socially more at ease with the Moslems, it was the Hindus 
who had administered India for them/ They were India’s 
businessmen, financiers, administrators, professional men. 
With the Parsees, the descendants of ancient Persia’s fire- 
worshipping Zoroastrians, they monopolized insurance, bank- 
ing, big business and India’s few industries. 

In the towns and small cities, the Hindus were the dominant 
commercial community. The ubiquitous role of the 
moneylender was almost everywhere discharged by Hindus, 
partly because of their aptitude for the task, partly because of 
the Koranic proscription preventing Moslems from practising 

The Moslem upper classes, many of whom descended from 
the Moghul invaders, had tended to remain landlords and 
soldiers. The Moslem masses, because of the deeply engrained 
patterns of Indian society, rarely escaped in the faith of 
Mohammed the roles that caste had assigned their forebears 
in the faith of Shiva. They were usually landless peasants in 
the service of Hindus or Moslems in the country, labourers 
and petty craftsmen in the service of Hindu employers in the 

That economic rivalry accentuated the social and religious 
barriers between the two communities and made communal 
slaughters such as that which had shattered the peace of Sri-' 
rampur a regular occurrence. Each community had its pet 
provocations with which it would launch them. 

For the Hindus it was music. Music never accompanied the 
austere service of the mosque and its strains mingling with 
the mumble of the Faithfuls’ prayers was a blasphemy. There 
was no surer way for the Hindus to incite their Moslem neigh- 

* The Moslems had also been subtly penalized in the two or three decades 
after 1857 for the role their community had played in the Indian Army 

‘Walk Alone, Walk Alone’ 3 1 

hours than to set up a band outside a mosque during Friday 

prayers. . . . , 

For the Moslem, the favourite provocation involved an ani- 
mal, one of the grey, skeletal beasts lowing down the streets 
of every city, town and village in India, aimlessly wandering 
her fields, the object of the most perplexing of Hinduism’s 
cults, the Sacred Cow. 

The veneration of the cow dated back to biblical times, when 
the fortunes of the pastoral Indo-European peoples migrating 
on to the sub-continent depended on the vitality of their herds. 
As the rabbis of ancient Judea had forbidden pigs flesh to 
their people to save them from the ravages of trichinosis, so 
the sadhus of ancient India proclaimed the cow sacred so as 
to save from slaughter in times of famine the herds on which 
their peoples’ existence depended. 

As a result, India had in 1947 the largest bovine herd in the 
world, 200 million beasts, one for every two Indians, an animal 
population larger than the human population of the United 
States. 40 million cows produced a meagre trickle of milk 
averaging barely one pint per animal per day. 40 or 50 million 
more were beasts of burden, tugging their bullock carts and 
ploughs. The rest, 100-odd million, were sterile, useless animals 
roaming free through the fields, villages and cities of India. 
Every day their restless jaws chomped through the food that 
could have fed ten million Indians living on the edge of star- 

The instinct for survival alone should have condemned those 
useless beasts. Yet, so tenacious had the superstition become 
that cow slaughter remained an abomination for those very 
Indians who were starving to death so that the beasts could 
continue their futile existence. Even Gandhi maintained that 
in protecting the cow it was all God’s work that man protected. 

To the Moslems, the thought that a man could so degrade 
himself as to worship a dumb animal was repugnant. They 
took a perverse delight in driving a lowing, protesting herd of 
cows past the front door of a Hindu Temple en route to the 
slaughter house. Over the centuries, thousands of human 


Freedom at Midnight 

beings had accompanied those animals to their deaths in the 
riots which often followed each such gesture. 

While the British ruled India, they managed to keep a fragile 
balance between the two communities, at the same time using 
their antagonism as an instrument to ease the burden of their 
rule. Initially, the drive for Indian independence was confined 
to an intellectual elite in which Hindus and Moslems ignored 
communal differences to work side by side towards a common 
goal. Ironically, it was Gandhi who had disrupted that accord. 

In the most spiritual area on earth, it was inevitable that 
the freedom struggle should take on the guise of a religious 
crusade, and Gandhi had made it one. No man was ever more 
tolerant, more genuinely free of any taint of religious prejudice 
than Gandhi. He desperately wanted to associate the Moslems 
with every phase of his movement. But he was a Hindu, and a 
deep belief in God was the very essence of his being. Inevitably, 
unintentionally, Gandhi’s Congress Party movement began to 
take on a Hindu tone and colour that aroused Moslem sus- 

Their suspicions were strengthened as narrow-minded local 
Congress leaders persistently refused to share with their Mos- 
lem rivals whatever electoral spoils British rule allowed. A 
spectre grew in Moslem minds: in an independent India they 
would be drowned by Hindu majority rule, condemned to the 
existence of a powerless minority in the land their Moghul 
forebears had once ruled. 

One perspective seemed to offer an escape from that fate, 
the creation of a separate Islamic nation on the sub-continent. 
The idea that India’s Moslems should set up a state of their 
own was formally articulated for the first time on four and a 
half pages of typing paper in a nondescript English cottage at 
3 Humberstone Road in Cambridge. Its author was a forty- 
year-old Indian Moslem graduate student named Rahmat Ali, 
and the date at the head of his proposal was 28 January 1933. 
The idea that India formed a single nation, Ali wrote, was ‘a 
preposterous falsehood . He called for a Moslem nation carved 
from the provinces of north-west India where the Moslems 

‘ Walk Alone , Walk Alone 9 


were predominant, the Punjab, Kashmir, Sind, the Frontier, 
Baluchistan. He even had a name to propose for his new state. 
Based on the names of the provinces that would compose it, 
it was ‘Pakistan - land of the pure’. 

‘We will not crucify ourselves,’ he concluded in a fiery, if 
inept metaphor, ‘on a cross of Hindu nationalism. 5 

Adopted by the body that was the focal point of Moslem 
nationalist aspirations, the Moslem League, Rahmat Ali’s 
proposal gradually took hold of the imagination of India’s 
Moslem masses. Its progress was nurtured by the chauvinistic 
attitude of the predominantly Hindu leaders of Congress who 
remained determined to make no concession to their Moslem 

The event which served to catalyse into violence the rivalry 
of India’s Hindu and Moslem communities took place on 16 
August 1946, just five months before Gandhi set out on his 
penitent’s march. The site was the second city of the British 
Empire, a metropolis whose reputation for violence and sav- 
agery was unrivalled, Calcutta. Calcutta, with the legend of its 
Black Hole, had been a synonym for Indian cruelty to genera- 
tions of Englishmen. 

Hell, a Calcutta resident had once remarked, was being born 
an Untouchable in Calcutta’s slums. Those slums contained 
the densest concentration of human beings in the world, foetid 
pools of unrivalled misery, Hindu and Moslem neighbour- 
hoods interlaced without pattern or reason. 

At dawn on 16 August, howling in a quasi- religious fervour, 
Moslem mobs had come bursting from their slums, waving 
clubs, iron bars, shovels, any instrument capable of smashing 
in a human skull. They came in answer to a call issued by the 
Moslem League, proclaiming 16 August ‘Direct Action Day’, 
to prove to Britain and the Congress Party that India’s Mos- 
lems were prepared ‘to get Pakistan for themselves by “Direct 
Action” if necessary’. 

They savagely beat to a sodden pulp any Hindus in their 
path and stuffed their remains in the city’s open gutters. The 
terrified police simply disappeared. Soon tall pillars of black 

34 Freedom at Midnight 

smoke stretched up from a score of spots in the city, Hindu 
bazaars in full blaze. 

Later, the Hindu mobs came storming out of their neigh- 
bourhoods looking for defenceless Moslems to slaughter. 
Never, in all its violent history, had Calcutta known 24 hours 
as savage, as packed with human viciousness. Like water- 
soaked logs, scores of bloated corpses bobbed down the 
Hooghly river towards the sea. Others, savagely mutilated, 
littered the city’s streets. Everywhere, the weak and helpless 
suffered most. At one crossroads, a line of Moslem coolies lay 
beaten to death where a Hindu mob had found them, between 
the poles of their rickshaws. By the time the slaughter was 
over, Calcutta belonged to the vultures. In filthy grey packs 
they scudded across the sky, tumbling down to gorge them- 
selves on the bodies of the city’s 6000 dead. 

The Great Calcutta Killings, as they became known, trig- 
gered bloodshed in Noakhali, where Gandhi was; in Bihar; and 
on the other side of the sub-continent in Bombay. 

They changed the course of India’s history. The threat the 
Moslems had been uttering for years, their warnings of a cata- 
clysm which would overtake India if they were denied their 
own state, took on a terrifying reality. Suddenly, India was 
confronted by the awful vision that had sickened Gandhi and 
sent him into the jungles of Noakhali: civil war. 

To another man, to the cold and brilliant lawyer who had 
been Gandhi’s chief Moslem foe for a quarter of a century, 
that prospect now became the tool with which to pry India 
apart. History, beyond that written by his own people, would 
never accord Mohammed Ali Jinnah the high place his achieve- 
ments merited. Yet, it was he, more than Gandhi or anyone 
else, who held the key to India’s future. It was with that stem 
and uncompromising Moslem Messiah, leading his people 
to another man’s Promised Land, that Queen Victoria’s 
great-grandson would have to contend when he reached 

In a tent outside Bombay in August 1946, he had evaluated 
for his followers in the Moslem League the meaning of Direct 


‘Walk Alone, Walk Alone ’ 

Action Day. If Congress wanted war, he declared, then India’s 
Moslems would ‘accept their offer unhesitatingly . 

Pale lips pressed into a grim smile, his piercing eyes alight 
with repressed passion, Jinnah had that day flung down the 
gauntlet to Congress, to the British. 

‘We shall have India divided,’ he vowed, ‘or we shall have 

India destroyed.’ 


‘ Leave India to God ’ 


London , January 1947 

‘Look,’ said Louis Mountbatten, ‘a terrible thine has 

Two men were alone in the intimacy of a Buckingham Palace 
sitting-room. At times like this, there was never any formality 
between them. They sat side by side like a couple of old school 
friends chatting as they sipped their tea. Today, however, a 
special nuance enlivened Mountbatten’s conversational tone. 
His cousin King George VI represented his court of last appeal, 
the last faint hope that he might somehow avoid the stigma 
of becoming the man to cut Britain’s ties with India. The King 
was after all Emperor of India and entitled to the final word 
on his appointment as Viceroy. It was not to be the word the 
young admiral wished to hear. 

I know,’ replied the King with his shy smile, ‘the Prime 
Minister’s already been to see me and I’ve agreed.’ 

You’ve agreed?’ asked Mountbatten. ‘Have you really 
thought it over?’ 

‘Oh, yes,’ replied the King quite cheerfully. ‘I’ve thought it 
over carefully.’ 

Look, said Mountbatten. ‘This is very dangerous. Nobody 
can foresee any way of finding an agreement out there. It’s 
almost impossible to find one. I’m your cousin. If I go out 
there and make the most deplorable mess, it will reflect very 
badly on you.’ 7 

‘Ah,’ said the sovereign, ‘but think how well it will reflect 
on the monarchy if you succeed.’ 

‘Well,’ sighed Mountbatten, sinking back into his chair, 
that’s very optimistic of you.’ 

4 Leave India to God' 


He could never sit there in that little salon without remem- 
bering another figure who used to sit in the chair across from 
his, another cousin, his closest friend, who had stood beside 
him on his wedding day at St Margaret’s, Westminster, the 
man who should have been King, David, Prince of Wales. 
From early boyhood, they had been close. When in 1936, as 
Edward VIII, David had abdicated the throne for which he 
had been trained because he was not prepared to rule without 
the woman he loved, ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten had haunted the 
corridors of his palace, the King’s constant solace and com- 

How ironic, Mountbatten thought. It was as David’s ADC 
that he had first set foot on the land he was now to liberate. 
It was 17 November 1921. India, the young Mountbatten had 
noted in his diary that night, ‘is the country one had always 
heard about, dreamt about, read about.’ Nothing on that extra- 
ordinary royal tour would disappoint his youthful expec- 
tations. The Raj was at its zenith then, and no attention was 
too lavish, no occasion too grand for the heir to the imperial 
throne, the Shahzada Sahib, and his party. They travelled in 
the white and gold viceregal train, their journey a round of 
parades, polo games, tiger hunts, moonlit rides on elephants, 
banquets and receptions of unsurpassed elegance proffered 
by the crown’s staunchest allies, the Indian princes. Leaving, 
Mountbatten thought, ‘India is the most marvellous country 
and the Viceroy has the most marvellous job in the 

Now, with the confirming nod of another cousin, that ‘mar- 
vellous job’ was his. 

A brief silence filled the Buckingham Palace sitting-room. 
With it, Louis Mountbatten sensed a shift in his cousin’s 

‘It’s too bad,’ the King said, a melancholy undertone to his 
voice, ‘I always wanted to come out to see you in Southeast 
Asia when you were fighting there, and then go to India, but 
Winston stopped it. I’d hoped at least to go out to India after 
the war. Now I’m afraid I shan’t be able to.’ 


Freedom at Midnight 

t’s sad,* he continued, ‘I’ve been crowned Emperor of India 
without ever having gone to India and now I shall lose the 
title from here in this palace in London/ 

Indeed, George VI would die without ever setting foot on 
that fabulous land. There would never be a tiger hunt for him, 
no parade of elephants jangling past in silver and gold, no line 
of bejewelled maharajas bowing to his person. 

His had been the crumbs of the Victorian table, a reign 
unexpected in its origins, conceived and matured in the 
shadows of war, now to be accomplished in the austerity of a 
post-war, Socialist England. On the May morning in 1937 when 
the Archbishop of Canterbury had pronounced Prince Albert, 
Duke of York, George the Sixth, by the Grace of God, King 
of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond 
the seas. Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India, 16 million 
of the 52 million square miles of land surface of the globe had 
been linked by one tie or another to his crown. 

The central historic achievement of George VPs reign would 
be the melancholy task foretold by the presence of his cousin 
in his sitting-room. He would be remembered by history as 
the monarch who had reigned over the dismemberment of the 
British Empire. Crowned King Emperor of an Empire that 
exceeded the most extravagant designs of Rome, Alexander 
the Great, Genghis Khan, the Caliphs or Napoleon, he would 
die the sovereign of an island kingdom on its way to becoming 
just another European nation. 

‘I know IVe got to take the “I” out of GRI. Tve got to give 
up being King Emperor/ the monarch noted, ‘but I would be 
profoundly saddened if all the links with India were severed/ 
George VI knew perfecdy well that the great imperial dream 
had faded. But if it had to disappear, how sad it would be if 
some of its achievements and glories could not survive it, if 
what it had represented could not find an expression in some 
new form more compatible with a modern age. 

‘It would be a pity/ he observed, ‘if an independent India 
were to turn its back on the Commonwealth/ 

The Commonwealth could indeed provide a framework in 

4 Leave India to God * 


which George VTs hopes might be realized. It could become 
a multi-racial assembly of independent nations with Britain, 
prima inter pares , at its core. Bound by common traditions, a 
common past, common symbolic ties to his crown, the 
Commonwealth could exercise great influence in world affairs. 
Britain, at the hub of such a body, would still speak in the 
councils of the world with an echo of that imperial voice that 
had once been hers. London might still be London; cultural, 
spiritual, financial and mercantile centre for much of the 
world. The imperial substance would have disappeared, but a 
shadow would remain to differentiate George VTs island king- 
dom from those other nations across the English Channel. 

If that ideal was to be realized, it was essential India remain 
within the Commonwealth. If India refused to join, the Affo- 
Asian nations which in their turn would accede to indepen- 
dence in the years to come would almost certainly follow her 
example. That would condemn the Commonwealth to become 
just a grouping of the Empire’s white dominions. 

Influenced by a long anti-imperial tradition however, 
George Vi’s Prime Minister and the Labour Party did not 
share the King’s inspiration. Attlee had not even told Mount- 
batten he was to make an effort to keep India in the Common- 

George VI, as a constitutional monarch, could do virtually 
nothing to further his hopes. His cousin, however, could and 
Louis Mountbatten ardently shared the King’s aspirations. No 
member of the royal family had travelled as extensively in the 
old Empire as he had. His intellect had understood and 
accepted its imminent demise; his heart ached at the thought. 

Sitting there in the Buckingham Palace sitting-room, 
Victoria’s two great-grandsons reached a private decision. 
Louis Mountbatten would become the agent of their common 
aspiration for the Commonwealth’s future. 

In a few days, Mountbatten would insist that Attlee include 
in his terms of reference a specific injunction to maintain an 
independent India, united or divided, inside the Common- 
wealth if at all possible. In the weeks ahead, there could be no 


Freedom at Midnight 

task to which India's new Viceroy would devote more thought, 
more persuasiveness, more cunning than that of maintaining 
a link between India and his cousin's crown. 


In a sense, no one might seem more naturally destined to 
occupy the majestic office of Viceroy of India than Louis 
Mountbatten. His first public gesture had occurred during his 
christening when, with a wave of his infant fist, he had knocked 
the spectacles from the bridge of his great-grandmother's 
imperial nose. 

His family's lineage, with one passage through the female 
line, went back to the Emperor Charlemagne. He was, or had 
been, related by blood or marriage to Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar 
Nicholas II, Alfonso XIII of Spain, Ferdinand I of Rumania, 
Gustav VI of Sweden, Constantine I of Greece, Haakon VII 
of Norway and Alexander I of Yugoslavia. For Louis Mount- 
batten, the crises of Europe had been family problems. 

Thrones, however, had been in increasingly short supply by 
the time Mountbatten was eighteen at the end of the First 
World War. The fourth child of Victoria's favourite grand- 
daughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse, and Prince Louis of 
Battenberg, her cousin, had had to savour the royal existence 
at second hand, playing out the summers of his youth in the 
palaces of his more favoured cousins. The memories of those 
idyllic summers remained deeply etched in his memory: tea 
parties on the lawns of Windsor Castle at which every guest 
might have worn a crown; cruises on the yacht of the Tsar; 
rides through the forests around Saint Petersburg with his 
haemophiliac cousin, the Tsarevitch, and the Tsarevitch’s sis- 
ter, the Grand Duchess Marie, with whom he fell in love. 

With that background, Mountbatten could have enjoyed a 
modest income, token service under the crown; the pleasant 
existence of a handsome embellishment to the ceremonials of 
a declining caste. He had chosen quite a different course, 
however, and he stood this winter morning at the pinnacle of 
a remarkable career. 

‘ Leave India to God ’ 


Mountbatten had just become 43 when, in the autumn of 
1943, Winston Churchill, searching for ‘a young and vigorous 
mind’, had appointed him Supreme Allied Commander South- 
east Asia. The authority and responsibility that command 
placed on his youthful shoulders had only one counterpart, 
the Supreme Allied Command of Dwight Eisenhower. One 
hundred and twenty-eight million people across a vast sweep 
of Asia fell under his charge. It was a command which at the 
time it was formed, he would later recall, had had ‘no victories 
and no priorities, only terrible morale, a terrible climate, a 
terrible foe and terrible defeats*. 

Many of his subordinates were twenty years and three or 
four ranks his senior. Some tended to look on him as a playboy 
who used his royal connection to slip out of his dinner jacket 
into a naval uniform and temporarily abandon the dance floor 
of the Cafe de Paris for the battlefield. 

He restored his men’s morale with personal tours to the 
front; asserted his authority over his generals by forcing them 
to fight through Burma’s terrible monsoon rains; cajoled, 
bullied and charmed every ounce of supplies he could get from 
his superiors in London and Washington. 

By 1945, his once disorganized and demoralized command 
had won the greatest land victory ever wrought over a Japanese 
Army. Only the dropping of the atomic bomb prevented him 
from carrying out his grand design, ‘Operation Zipper’, the 
landing of 250,000 men from ports 2000 miles away on the 
Malay Peninsula, an amphibious operation surpassed in size 
only by the Normandy landing. 

As a boy, Mountbatten had chosen a naval officer’s career 
to emulate his father who had left his native Germany at 
fourteen and risen to the post of First Sea Lord of the Royal 
Navy. Mountbatten had barely begun his studies as a cadet, 
however, when tragedy shattered his adored father’s career. 
He was forced to resign by the wave of anti-German hysteria 
which swept Britain after the outbreak of World War I. His 
heartbroken father changed his family name from Battenberg 
to Mountbatten at King George V’s request and was created 


Freedom at Midnight 

Marquess of Milford Haven. The First Sea Lord’s equally affec- 
ted son vowed to fill one day the post from which an unjust 
outcry had driven his father. 

During the long years between the wars, however, his career 
had followed the slow, unspectacular path of a peacetime offi- 
cer. It was in other, less martial fields that the young Mount- 
batten had made his impression on the public. With his charm, 
his remarkable good looks, his infectious gaiety, he was one 
of the darlings of Britain’s penny press, catering to a world 
desperate for glamour after the horrors of war. His marriage 
to Edwina Ashley, a beautiful and wealthy heiress, with the 
Prince of Wales as his best man, was the social event of 1922. 

Rare were the Sunday papers over the next years that did not 
contain a photograph or some mention of Louis and Edwina 
Mountbatten, the Mountbattens at the theatre with Noel 
Coward, the Mountbattens at the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, 
dashing young Lord Louis water-skiing in the Mediterranean 
or receiving a trophy won playing polo. 

They constituted an image Mountbatten never denied; he 
revelled in every dance, party and polo match. But beneath 
that public image there was another figure of which the public 
was unaware. It emerged when the dancing was over. 

The glamorous young man had not forgotten his boyhood 
vow. Mountbatten was an intensely serious, ambitious, and 
dedicated naval officer. He possessed an awesome capacity for 
work, a trait which would leave his subordinates gasping all 
his life. Convinced that future warfare would be patterned by 
the dictates of science and won by superior communications, 
Mountbatten eschewed the more social career of a deck officer 
to study signals. 

He came out top of the Navy Higher Wireless Course in 
1927, then sat down to write the first comprehensive manual 
for all the wireless sets used by the Navy. He was fascinated 
by the fast-expanding horizons of technology and plunged 
himself into the study of physics, electricity and communi- 
cations in every form. New techniques, new ideas, were his 
passions and his playthings. 

‘ Leave India to God ’ 


He obtained for the Royal Navy the works of a brilliant 
French rocketry expert, Robert Esnault Pelterie. Their pages 
gave Britain an eerily accurate forecast of the V-bomb, guided 
missiles and even man’s first flight to the moon. In Switzerland, 
he ferreted out a fast-firing anti-aircraft gun designed to stop 
the Stuka dive bomber; then spent months forcing the reluc- 
tant Royal Navy to adopt it. 

He had followed the rise of Hitler and German rearmament 
with growing apprehension. He had also watched with pained 
but perceptive eyes the evolution of the society that had driven 
his beloved uncle Nicholas II from the throne of the Tsars. 
Increasingly, as the thirties wore on, Mountbatten and his wife 
spent less and less time on the dance floor, and more and 
more in a crusade to awaken friends and politicians to the 
conflict both saw was coming. 

On 25 August 1939, a proud Mountbatten took command 
of a newly commissioned destroyer, H M S Kelly. A few hours 
later the radio announced Hitler and Stalin had signed a non- 
aggression pact. The Kelly s captain understood the import of 
the announcement immediately. Mountbatten ordered his 
crew to work day and night to reduce the three weeks needed 
to ready the ship for sea. 

Nine days later, when war broke out, the captain of the 
Kelly was slung over the ship’s side in a pair of dirty overalls, 
sloshing paint on her hull along with his able seamen. The 
next day, however, the Kelly was in action against a German 

T will never give the order “Abandon ship”,’ Mountbatten 
promised his crew. ‘The only way we will ever leave this ship 
is if she sinks under our feet.’ 

The Kelly escorted convoys through the channel, hunted 
U-boats in the North Sea, dashed through fog and German 
bombers to help rescue six thousand survivors of the Narvik 
expedition at the head of the Namsos Fiord in Norway. Her 
stern was damaged at the mouth of the Tyne and her boiler 
room devastated by a torpedo in the North Sea. Ordered to 
scuttle, Mountbatten refused, spent a night alone on the drift- 

44 Freedom at Midnight 

ing wreck, then, with eighteen volunteers, brought her home 
under tow. 

A year later, in May 1941, off Crete, the Kellys luck ran out. 
She took a bomb in her magazine and went down in minutes. 
Faithful to his vow, Mountbatten stayed on her bridge until 
she rolled over, then fought his way to the surface. For hours, 
he held the oil-spattered survivors around a single life raft, 
leading them in singing ‘Roll Out the BarreF while German 
planes strafed them. Mountbatten won the DSO for his 
exploits on the Kelly and the ship a bit of immortality in the 
film In Which We Serve , made by Mountbatten’s friend Noel 

Five months later, Churchill, searching for a bold young 
officer to head Combined Operations, the commando force 
created to develop the tactics and technology that would 
eventually bring the Allies back to the continent, called on 
Mountbatten. The assignment proved ideal for his blend of 
dash and scientific curiosity. Vowing he was a man who would 
never say no to an idea, he opened his command to a parade of 
inventors, scientists, technicians, geniuses and mountebanks. 
Some of their schemes, like an iceberg composed of frozen sea 
water mixed with five per cent wood pulp to serve as a floating 
and unsinkable airfield, were wild fantasies. But they also pro- 
duced Pluto, the underwater trans-channel pipeline, the Mul- 
berry artificial harbours and the landing and rocket craft 
designs that made the Normandy invasion possible. For their 
leader, they ultimately produced his extraordinary elevation 
to Supreme Command of South-east Asia at the age of 43. 

Now preparing to take on the most challenging task of 
his career, Mountbatten was at the peak of his physical and 
intellectual powers. The war at sea and high command had 
given him a capacity for quick decision and brought out his 
natural talent for leadership. He was not a philosopher or an 
abstract thinker, but he possessed an incisive, analytical mind 
honed by a lifetime of hard work. He had none of the Anglo- 
Saxon affection for the role of the good loser. He believed in 
winning. As a young officer, his crews had once swept the field 

‘ Leave India to God 9 


in a navy regatta because he had taught them an improved 
rowing technique. Criticized later for the style he’d introduced, 
he had acidly observed that he thought the important thing 
was ‘crossing the finishing line first’. 

His youthful gaiety had matured into an extraordinary 
charm and a remarkable facility for bringing people together. 
‘Mountbatten’, remarked a man who was not one of his 
admirers, ‘could charm a vulture off a corpse if he set his 
mind to it.’ 

Above all, Mountbatten was endowed with an endless reser- 
voir of self-confidence, a quality his detractors preferred to 
label conceit. When Churchill had offered him his Asian com- 
mand, he had asked for 24 hours to ponder the offer. 

‘Why,’ snarled Churchill, ‘don’t you think you can do it?’ 
‘Sir,’ replied Mountbatten, ‘I suffer from the congenital 
weakness of believing I can do anything.’ 

Victoria’s great-grandson would need every bit of that self- 
confidence in the weeks ahead. 

Penitent's Progress I 

At every village, his routine was the same. As soon as he 
arrived, the most famous Asian alive would go up to a hut, 
preferably a Moslem’s hut, and beg for shelter. If he was turned 
away, and sometimes he was, Gandhi would go to another 
door. ‘If there is no one to receive me,’ he had said, ‘I shall 
be happy to rest under the hospitable shade of a tree.’ 

Once installed, he lived on whatever food his hosts could 
offer: mangoes, vegetables, goat’s curds, green coconut milk. 
Every hour of his day in each village was rigorously pro- 
grammed. Time was one of Gandhi’s obsessions. Each minute, 
he held, was a gift of God to be used in the service of man. 
His own days were ordered by one of his few possessions, a 
sixteen-year-old, eight-shilling Ingersoll watch that was always 
tied to his waist with a piece of string. He got up at two o’clock 
in the morning to read his Gita and say his morning prayers. 
From then until dawn he squatted in his hut, patiently answer- 


Freedom at Midnight 

ing his correspondence in longhand by pencil. He used each 
pencil right down to an ungrippable stub because, he held, it 
represented the work of a fellow human being and to waste it 
would indicate indifference to his labours. Every morning at 
a rigidly appointed hour, he gave himself a salt and water 
enema. A devout believer in nature cures, Gandhi was con- 
vinced that was the way to flush the toxins from his bowels. 
For years, the final sign a man had been accepted in his com- 
pany, came when the Mahatma himself offered to give him a 
salt and water enema. 

At sun-up, Gandhi began to wander the village, talking and 
praying incessantly with its inhabitants. Soon he developed a 
tactic to implement his drive to return peace and security to 
Noakhali. It was a typically Gandhian ploy. In each village he 
would search until he'd found a Hindu and a Moslem leader 
who’d responded to his appeal. Then he’d persuade them to 
move in together under one roof. They would become the 
joint guarantors of the village’s peace. If his fellow Moslems 
assailed the village’s Hindus, the Moslem promised to under- 
take a fast to death. The Hindu made a similar pledge. 

But on those blood-spattered byways of Noakhali, Gandhi 
did not limit himself to trying to exorcise the hatred poisoning 
the villages through which he passed. Once he sensed a village 
was beginning to understand his message of fraternal love, he 
broadened the dimension of his appeal. India for Gandhi was 
its lost and inaccessible villages, like those hamlets along his 
route in Noakhali. He knew them better than any man alive. 
He wanted his independent India built on the foundation of 
her re- invigorated villages, and he had his own ideas on how 
to re-order the patterns of their existence. 

‘The lessons which I propose to give you during my tour 
are how you can keep the village water and yourselves clean,’ 
he would tell the villagers; ‘what use you can make of the 
earth, of which your bodies are made; how you can obtain the 
life force from the infinite sky over your heads; how you can 
reinforce your vital energy from the air which surrounds you; 
how you can make proper use of sunlight.’ 


‘Leave India to God’ 

The ageing leader did not satisfy himself with words. Gandhi 
had a tenacious belief in the value of actions. To the despair of 
many of his followers, who thought a different set of priorities 
should order his time, Gandhi would devote the same meticu- 
lous care and attention to making a mudpack for a leper as 
preparing for an interview with a Viceroy. So, in each village 
he would go with its inhabitants to their wells. Frequently he 
would help them find a better location for them. He would 
inspect their communal latrines, or if, as was most often the 
case, they didn’t have any, he would teach them how to build 
one, ofteq joining in the digging himself. Convinced bad 
hygiene was the basic cause of India’s terrible mortality rate, 
he’d inveighed for years against such habits as public def- 
ecation, spitting, and blowing out nostrils on the paths where 
most of the village poor walked barefoot. 

‘If we Indians spat in unison,’ he had once sighed, ‘we would 
form a puddle large enough to drown three hundred thousand 
Englishmen.’ Every time he saw a villager spitting or blowing 
his nose on a footpath, he would gently reprimand him. He 
went into homes to show people how to build a simple filter 
of charcoal and sand to help purify their drinking water. ‘The 
difference between what we do and what we could do, he 
constantly repeated, ‘would suffice to solve most of the world’s 

Every evening he held an open prayer meeting, inviting 
Moslems to join in, being careful to recite as part of each days 
service verses from the Koran. Anyone could question him on 
anything at those meetings. One day a villager remonstrated 
with him for wasting his time in Noakhali when he should 
have been in New Delhi negotiating with Jinnah and the Mos- 
lem League. 

‘A leader,' Gandhi replied, ‘is only a reflection of the people 
he leads.' The people had first to be led to make peace among 
themselves. Then, he said, ‘their desire to live together in 
peaceful neighbourliness will be reflected by their leaders. 

When he felt a village had begun to understand his message, 
when its Moslem community had agreed to let its frightened 


Freedom at Midnight 

Hindus return to their homes, he set out for the next hamlet, 
five, ten, fifteen miles away. Inevitably, his departure took 
place at precisely 7.30. As at Srirampur, the little party would 
march off, Gandhi at its head, through the mango orchards, 
the green scum-slicked ponds where ducks and wild geese went 
honking skywards at their approach. Their paths were narrow, 
winding their way through palm groves and the underbush. 
They were littered with stones, pebbles, protruding roots. 
Sometimes the little procession had to struggle through ankle- 
deep mud. By the time they reached their next stop, the 
77-year-old Mahatma’s bare feet were often aching with chil- 
blains, or disfigured by bleeding sores and blisters. Before 
taking up his task again, he soaked them in hot water. Then, 
Gandhi indulged in the one luxury of his penitent’s tour. 
His great-niece and constant companion, Manu, massaged his 
martyred feet - with a stone. 

For thirty years those battered feet had led the famished hordes 
of a continent in prayer towards their liberty. They had carried 
Gandhi into the most remote corners of India, to thousands 
of villages like those he now visited, to lepers’ wading pools, 
to the worst slums of his nation, to palaces and prisons, in 
quest of his cherished goal, India’s freedom. 

Mohandas Gandhi had been an eight-year-old schoolboy 
when the great-grandmother of the two cousins sipping their 
tea in Buckingham Palace had been proclaimed Empress of 
India on a plain near Delhi. For Gandhi, that grandiose cere- 
mony was always associated with a jingle he and his playmates 
had chanted to mark the event in his home town of Porbandar, 
700 miles from Delhi on the Arabian Sea: 

Behold the mighty Englishman! 

He rules the Indian small 
Because being a meat eater 
He is five cubits tall. 

The boy whose spiritual force would one day humble those 
five-cubit Englishmen and their enormous empire could not 

‘ Leave India to God ’ 


resist the challenge in the jingle. With a friend, he cooked and 
ate a forbidden piece of goat’s meat. The experiment was 
disastrous. The eight-year-old Gandhi promptly vomited up 
the goat and spent the night dreaming the animal was cavorting 
in his stomach. 

Gandhi’s father was the hereditary diwan, prime minister, 
of a tiny state on the Kathiawar peninsula near Bombay and 
his mother an intensely devout woman given to long religious 

Curiously, Gandhi, destined to become India’s greatest spir- 
itual leader of modern times, was not born into the Brahmin 
caste that was supposed to provide Hinduism with its heredi- 
tary philosophical and religious elite. His father was a member 
of the vaisyas , the caste of shopkeepers and petty tradesmen 
which stood halfway up the Hindu social scale, above 
Untouchable and sudras , artisans, but below Brahmins and 
kashatriyas , warriors. 

At thirteen, Gandhi, following the Indian tradition of the 
day, was married to an illiterate stranger named Kasturbai. 
The youth who was later to offer the world a symbol of ascetic 
purity revelled in the consequent discovery of sex. 

Four years later, Gandhi and his wife were in the midst of 
enjoying its pleasures when a rap on the door interrupted their 
lovemaking. It was a servant. Gandhi’s father, he announced, 
had just died. 

Gandhi was horrified. He was devoted to his father. 
Moments before he’d been by the bed on which his father lay 
dying, patiently massaging his legs. An urgent burst of sexual 
desire had seized him and he’d tiptoed from his father’s 
room to wake up his pregnant wife. The joy of sex began to 
fade for Gandhi. An indelible stamp had been left on his 

As a result of his father’s death, Gandhi was sent to England 
to study law so he might become prime minister of a princely 
state. It was an enormous undertaking for a devout Hindu 
family. No member of Gandhi’s family had ever gone abroad 
before. Gandhi was solemnly pronounced an outcast from his 


Freedom at Midnight 

shopkeepers’ caste, because, to his Hindu elders, his voyage 
across the seas would leave him contaminated. 

Gandhi was wretchedly unhappy in London. He was so 
desperately shy that to address a single word to a stranger was 
a painful ordeal; to produce a full sentence agony. Physically, 
at nineteen he was a pathetic little creature in the sophisticated 
world of the Inns of Court. His cheap, badly-cut Bombay 
clothes flopped over his undersized body like loose sails on a 
becalmed ship. Indeed, he was so small, so unremarkable, his 
fellow students sometimes took him for an errand boy. 

The lonely, miserable Gandhi decided the only way out of 
his agony was to become an English gentleman. He threw away 
his Bombay clothes and got a new wardrobe. It included a silk 
top-hat, an evening suit, patent-leather boots, white gloves and 
even a silver-tipped walking stick. He bought hair lotion to 
plaster his unwilling black hair on to his skull. He spent hours 
in front of a mirror contemplating his appearance and learning 
to tie a tie. To win the social acceptance he longed for, he 
bought a violin, joined a dancing class, hired a French tutor 
and an elocution teacher. 

The results of that poignant little charade were as disastrous 
as his earlier encounter with goat’s meat. The only sound he 
learned to coax from his violin was a dissonant wail. His 
feet refused to acknowledge three-quarter time, his tongue the 
French language, and no amount of elocution lessons were 
going to free the spirit struggling to escape from under his 
crippling shyness. Even a visit to a brothel was a failure. Gandhi 
couldn’t get past the parlour. 

He gave up his efforts to become an Englishman and went 
back to being himself. When finally he was called to the bar, 
Gandhi rushed back to India with undisguised relief. 

His homecoming was less than triumphant. For months, he 
hung around the Bombay courts looking for a case to plead. 
The young man whose voice would one day inspire 300 million 
Indians proved incapable of articulating the phrases necessary 
to impress a single Indian magistrate. 

That failure led to the first great turning point in Gandhi’s 


'Leave India to God’ 

life. His frustrated family sent him to South Africa to unravel 
the legal problems of a distant kinsman. His trip was to have 
lasted a few months; he stayed over twenty years. There, in 
that bleak and hostile land, Gandhi found the philosophical 
principles that transformed his life and Indian history. 

Nothing about the young Gandhi walking down a gangplank 
in Durban harbour in May 1893, however, indicated a vocation 
for asceticism or saintliness. The future prophet of poverty 
made his formal entry on to the soil of South Africa in a high 
white collar and the fashionable frock coat of a London Inner 
Temple barrister, his brief-case crammed with documents on 
the rich Indian businessman whose interests he’d come to 

Gandhi’s real introduction to South Africa came a week 
after his arrival on an overnight train ride from Durban to 
Pretoria. Four decades later Gandhi would still remember that 
trip as the most formative experience of his life. Halfway to 
Pretoria a white man stalked into his first-class compartment 
and ordered him into the baggage car. Gandhi, who held a 
first-class ticket, refused. At the next stop the white called a 
policeman and Gandhi with his luggage was unceremoniously 
thrown off the train in the middle of the night. 

All alone, shivering in the cold because he was too shy to 
ask the station master for the overcoat locked in his luggage, 
Gandhi passed the night huddled in the unlit railroad station, 
pondering his first brutal confrontation with racial prejudice. 
Like a medieval youth during the vigil of his knighthood, 
Gandhi sat praying to the God of the Gita for courage and 
guidance. When dawn finally broke on the little station of 
Maritzburg, the timid, withdrawn youth was a changed person. 
The little lawyer had reached the most important decision of 
his life. Mohandas Gandhi was going to say ‘no’. 

A week later, Gandhi delivered his first public speech to 
Pretoria’s Indians. The advocate who’d been so painfully shy 
in the courtrooms of Bombay had begun to find his tongue. 
He urged the Indians to unite to defend their interests and, 
as a first step, to learn how to do it in their oppressors’ English 

52 - 

Freedom at Midnight 

tongue. The foUowing evening, without realizing it, Gandhi 
began the work that would ultimately bring India freedom by 
teaching English grammar to a barber, a clerk and a shop- 
keeper. Soon he had also won the first of the successes which 
would be his over the next half-century. He wrung from the 
railway authorities the right for well-dressed Indians to travel 
first- or second-class on South Africa’s railways. 

Gandhi decided to stay on in South Africa when the case 
which had sent him there had been resolved. He became both 
the champion of South Africa’s Indian community and a highly 
successful lawyer. Loyal to the British Empire despite its 
racial injustice, he even led an ambulance corps in the Boer 

Ten years after his arrival in South Africa, another long 
tram ride provoked the second great turning point in Gandhi’s 
life. As he boarded the Johannesburg-Durban train one 
evening in 1904, an English friend passed Gandhi a book to 
read on the long trip, John Ruskin’s Unto This Last. 

All night Gandhi sat up reading as his train rolled through 
the South African veldt. It was his revelation on the road to 
Damascus. By the time his train reached Durban the following 
morning, Gandhi had made an epic vow: he was going to 
renounce all his material possessions and live his life according 
to Ruskin’s ideals. 

Riches, Ruskin wrote, were just a tool to secure power over 
men. A labourer with a spade served society as truly as a lawyer 
with a brief, and the life of labour, of the tiller of the soil, is 
the life worth living. 

Gandhi’s decision was all the more remarkable because he 
was, at that moment, a wealthy man earning over £5000 a year 
from his law practice, an enormous sum in the South Africa 
of the time. 

For two years, however, doubts had been fermenting in 
Gandhi’s mind. He was haunted by the Bhagavad Gita’s doc- 
trine of renunciation of desire and attachment to material 
possessions as the essential stepping-stone to a spiritual 
awakening. He had already made experiments of his own: he 

4 Leave India to God y 


had started to cut his own hair, do his laundry, clean his own 
toilet. He had even delivered his last child. His doubts found 
their confirmation in Ruskin’s pages. 

Barely a week later, Gandhi settled his family and a group 
of friends on a hundred-acre farm near Phoenix, fourteen 
miles from Durban. There, on a sad, scrubby site consist- 
ing of a ruined shack, a well, some orange, mulberry and 
mango trees, and a horde of snakes, Gandhi’s life took on the 
pattern that would rule it until his death: a renunciation of 
material possessions and a striving to satisfy human needs in 
the simplest manner, coupled with a communal existence 
in which all labour was equally valuable and all goods were 

One last, painful renunciation remained, however, to be 
made. It was the vow of Brahmacharya , the pledge of sexual 
continence and it had haunted Gandhi for years. 

The scar left by his father’s death, a desire to have no more 
children, his rising religious consciousness all drove him 
towards his decision. One summer evening in 1906 Gandhi 
solemnly announced to his wife, Kasturbai, that he had taken 
the vow of Brahmacharya. Begun in a joyous frenzy at the age 
of thirteen, the sexual life of Mohandas Gandhi had reached 
its conclusion at the age of 37. 

To Gandhi, however, Brahmacharya meant more than just 
the curbing of sexual desires. It was the control of all the 
senses. It meant restraint in emotion, diet, and speech, the 
suppression of anger, violence and hate, the attainment of a 
desireless state close to the Gita's ideal of non-possession. It 
was his definitive engagement on the ascetic’s path, the ulti- 
mate act of self-transformation. None of the vows Gandhi took 
in his life would force upon him such intense internal struggle 
as his vow of chastity. It was a struggle which, in one form or 
another, would be with him for the rest of his life. 

It was, however, in the racial struggle he’d undertaken dur- 
ing his first week in South Africa that Gandhi enunciated the 
two doctrines which would make him world-famous: non- 
violence and civil disobedience. 


Freedom at Midnight 

It was a passage from the Bible which had first set Gandhi 
meditating on non-violence. He had been overwhelmed by 
Christ's admonition to his followers to turn the other cheek 
to their aggressors. The little man had already applied the 
doctrine himself, stoically submitting to the beatings of numer- 
ous white aggressors. The philosophy of an eye for an eye led 
only to a world of the blind, he reasoned. You don't change 
a man's convictions by chopping off his head or infuse his 
heart with a new spirit by putting a bullet through it. Violence 
only brutalizes the violent and embitters its victims. Gandhi 
sought a doctrine that would force change by the example of 
the good, reconcile men with the strength of God instead of 
dividing them by the strength of man. 

The South African government furnished him an opportu- 
nity to test his still half-formulated theories in the autumn of 
1906. The occasion was a law which would have forced all 
Indians over the age of eight to register with the government, 
be fingerprinted and carry special identity cards. On 11 Sep- 
tember, before a gathering of angry Indians in the Empire 
Theatre in Johannesburg, Gandhi took the stand to protest 
against the law. 

To obey it, he said, would lead to the destruction of their 
community. ‘There is only one course open to me,' he declared, 
‘to die but not to submit to the law.’ For the first time in his 
life he led a public assembly in a solemn vow before God to 
resist an unjust law, whatever the consequences. Gandhi did 
not explain to his audience how they would resist the law. 
Probably he himself did not know. Only one thing was clear; 
it would be resisted without violence. 

The new principle of political and social struggle born 
in the Empire Theatre soon had a name, Satyagraha, Truth 
Force. Gandhi organized a boycott of the registration proced- 
ures and peaceful picketing of the registration centres. 
His actions earned him the first of his life's numerous jail 

While in jail, Gandhi encountered the second of the secular 
works which would deeply influence his thought, Henry 

‘Leave India to God’ 


Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience.* Protesting against a 
US government that condoned slavery and was fighting an 
unjust war in Mexico, Thoreau asserted the individual’s right 
to ignore unjust laws and refuse his allegiance to a government 
whose tyranny had become unbearable. To be right, he said, 
was more honourable than to be law-abiding. 

Thoreau’s essay was a catalyst to thoughts already stirring 
in Gandhi. Released from jail, he decided to apply them in 
protest against a decision of the Transvaal to close its borders 
to Indians. On 6 November 1913, 2037 men, 127 women, and 
57 children, Gandhi at their head, staged a non-violent march 
on the Transvaal’s frontiers. Their certain destiny was jail, their 
only sure reward a frightful beating. 

Watching that pathetic, bedraggled troop walking confidently 
along behind him, Gandhi experienced another illuminating 
revelation. Those wretches had nothing to look forward to but 
pain. Armed white vigilantes waited at the border, perhaps to 
kill them. Yet fired by faith in him and the cause to which he’d 
called them, they marched in his footsteps, ready, in Gandhi’s 
words, to ‘melt their enemies’ hearts by self-suffering’. 

Gandhi suddenly sensed in their quiet resolution what mass, 
non-violent action might become. There on the borders of the 
Transvaal he realized the enormous possibilities inherent in 
the movement he’d provoked. The few hundreds behind him 
that November day could become hundreds of thousands, a 
tide rendered irresistible by an unshakeable faith in the non- 
violent ideal. 

Persecution, flogging, jailing, economic sanctions followed 
their action, but they could not break the movement. His 
African crusade ended in almost total victory in 1914. He could 
go home at last. 


* The third was Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. He admired 
Tolstoy’s insistence on applying his moral principles in his daily life. The 
two men held remarkably similar views on non-violence, education, diet, 
industrialization, and corresponded briefly before Tolstoy s death. 


Freedom at Midnight 

The Gandhi who left South Africa in July 1914 was a totally 
different person from the timid young lawyer who’d 
landed in Durban. He had discovered on its inhospitable soil 
his three teachers, Ruskin, Tolstoy and Thoreau. From his 
experience he had evolved the two doctrines, non-violence 
and civil disobedience, with which, over the next thirty 
years, he would humble the most powerful empire in the 

An enormous crowd gave Gandhi a hero’s welcome when 
his diminutive figure passed under the spans of Bombay’s 
Gateway of India on 9 January 1915. The spare suitcase of 
the leader passing under that imperial archway contained one 
significant item. It was a thick bundle of paper covered with 
Gandhi’s handwritten prose. Its tide Hind Swaraj - ‘Indian 
Home Rule’, made one thing clear. Africa, for Gandhi, 
had been only a training ground for the real battle of 
his life. 

Gandhi settled near the industrial city of Ahmedabad on 
the banks of the Sabarmati River where he founded an ashram, 
a communal farm similar to those he’d founded in South 
Africa. As always, Gandhi’s first concern was for the poor. He 
organized the indigo farmers of Bihar against the oppressive 
exactions of their British landlords, the peasants of the 
drought-stricken province of Bombay against their taxes, the 
workers in Ahmedabad’s textile mills against the employers 
whose contributions sustained his ashram. For the first time, 
an Indian leader was addressing himself to the miseries of 
India’s masses. Soon Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel 
Prizewinner, conferred on Gandhi the appellation he would 
carry for the rest of his life, ‘Mahatma’. ‘The Great Soul in 
Beggar’s Garb’, he called him. 

Like most Indians, Gandhi was loyal to Britain in World 
War I, convinced Britain in return would give a sympathetic 
hearing to India’s nationalist aspirations. Gandhi was wrong. 
Britain instead passed the Rowlatt Act in 1919, to repress agita- 
tion for Indian freedom. For weeks Gandhi meditated, seeking 
a tactic with which to respond to Britain’s rejection of 

1 Leave India to God y 


India’s hopes. The idea for a reply came to him in a dream. 

It was brilliantly, stunningly simple. India would protest, he 
decreed, with silence, a special eerie silence. He would do 
something no one had ever dreamed of doing before; he would 
immobilize all India in the quiet chill of a day of mourning, 
a hartal. 

Like so many of Gandhi’s political ideas, the plan reflected 
his instinctive genius for tactics that could be enunciated in 
few words, understood by the simplest minds, put into practice 
with the most ordinary gestures. To follow him, his supporters 
did not have to break the law or brave police clubs. They 
had only to do nothing. By closing their shops, leaving their 
classrooms, going to their temples to pray or just staying at 
home, Indians could demonstrate their solidarity with his pro- 
test call. He chose 7 April 1919 as the day of his hartal. It was 
his first overt act against the Government of India. Let India 
stand still, he urged, and let India’s oppressors listen to the 
unspoken message of her silent masses. 

Unfortunately, those masses were not everywhere silent. 
Riots erupted. The most serious were in Amritsar in the 
Punjab. To protest against the restrictions clamped on their 
city as a result, thousands of Indians gathered on 13 April, for 
a peaceful but illegal meeting in a stone- and debris-littered 
compound called Jallianwalla Bagh. 

There was only one entrance to the compound down a 
narrow alley between two buildings. Through it, just after the 
meeting had begun, marched Amritsar’s Martial Law Com- 
mander, Brigadier R. E. Dyer, at the head of fifty soldiers. He 
stationed his men on either side of the entry and, without 
warning, opened fire with machine-guns on the defenceless 
Indians. For ten full minutes, while the trapped Indians 
screamed for mercy, the soldiers fired. They fired 1650 rounds. 
Their bullets killed or wounded 1516 people. Convinced he’d 
‘done a jolly good thing’. Dyer marched his men back out of 
the Bagh. 

His ‘jolly good thing’ was a turning point in the history of 
Anglo-Indian relations, more decisive even than the Indian 



Freedom at Midnight 

Mutiny 63 years before/ For Gandhi it was the final breach 
of faith by the empire for which he had compromised his 
pacifist principles. He turned all his efforts to taking control of 
the organization which had become synonymous with India’s 
nationalist aspirations. 

The idea that the Congress Party might one day become the 
focal point of mass agitation against British rule in India would 
surely have horrified the dignified English civil servant who 
had founded the party in 1885. Acting with the blessings of the 
Viceroy, Octavian Hume had sought to create an organization 
which would canalize the protests of India’s slowly growing 
educated classes into a moderate, responsible body prepared 
to engage in gentlemanly dialogue with India’s English rulers. 

That was exactly what Congress was when Gandhi arrived 
on the political scene. Determined to convert it into a mass 
movement attuned to his non-violent creed, Gandhi presented 
the party with a plan of action in Calcutta in 1920. It was 
adopted by an overwhelming majority. From that moment 
until his death, whether he held rank in the party or not, 
Gandhi was Congress’s conscience and its guide, the unques- 
tioned leader of the independence struggle. 

Like his earlier call for a national hartal, Gandhi’s new tactic 
was electrifyingly simple, a one word programme for political 
revolution: non-co-operation. Indians, he decreed, would boy- 
cott whatever was British: students would boycott British 
schools; lawyers, British courts; employees, British jobs; sol- 
diers, British honours. Gandhi himself gave the lead by 
returning to the Viceroy the two medals he’d earned with his 
ambulance brigade in the Boer War. 

Above all, his aim was to weaken the edifice of British 
power in India by attacking the economic pillar upon which 

Dyer was reprimanded for his actions and asked to resign from the army. 
He was, however, allowed to retain full pension benefits and other rights 
due him. His demonstration was applauded by most of the British in^ndia. 

In clubs all across the country, his admiring countrymen took up a collection 
on his behalf, amassing the then prodigious sum of £26,000 to ease the 
rigours of his premature retirement. 

‘Leave India to God’ 


it reposed. Britain purchased raw Indian cotton for derisory 
prices* shipped it to the mills of Lancashire to be woven into 
textiles, then shipped the finished products back to India to 
be sold at a substantial profit in a market which virtually 
excluded non-British textiles. It was the classic cycle of imperi- 
alist exploitation, and the arm with which Gandhi proposed 
to fight it was the very antithesis of the great mills of the 
Industrial Revolution that had sired that exploitation. It was 
a primitive wooden spinning-wheel. 

For the next quarter of a century Gandhi struggled with 
tenacious energy to force all India to forsake foreign textiles for 
the rough cotton khadi spun by millions of spinning-wheels. 
Convinced the misery of India’s countryside was due above 
all to the decline in village crafts, he saw in a renaissance of 
cottage industry heralded by the spinning-wheel the key to the 
revival of India’s impoverished countryside. For the urban 
masses, spinning would be a kind of spiritual redemption by 
manual labour, a constant, daily reminder of their link to the 
real India, the India of half a million villages. 

The wheel became the medium through which he enunci- 
ated a whole range of doctrines close to his heart. To it, he 
tied a crusade to get villagers to use latrines instead of the 
open fields, to improve hygiene and health by practising 
cleanliness, to fight malaria, to set up simple village schools 
for their offspring, to preach Hindu-Moslem harmony: in short 
an entire programme to regenerate India’s rural life. 

Gandhi himself gave the example by regularly consecrating 
half an hour a day to spinning and forcing his followers to do 
likewise. The spinning ritual became a quasi-religious cere- 
mony; the time devoted to it, an interlude of prayer and con- 
templation. The Mahatma began to murmur: ‘Rama, Rama, 
Rama (God) in rhythm to the click - click - click of the 

In September 1921, Gandhi gave a final impetus to his 
campaign by solemnly renouncing for the rest of his life any 
clothing except a homespun loincloth and a shawl. The prod- 
uct of the wheel, cotton khadi , became the uniform of the 


Freedom at Midnight 

independence movement, wrapping rich and poor, great and 
small, in a common swathe of rough white cloth. Gradually 
Gandhi’s little wooden wheel became the symbol of his peace- 
ful revolution, of an awakening continent’s challenge to 
Western imperialism. 

Splashing through ankle-deep mud and water, on precari- 
ous, rock-strewn paths, sleeping endless nights on the wooden 
planks of India’s third-class railway carriages, Gandhi travelled 
to the most remote corners of India preaching his message. 
Speaking five or six times a day, he visited thousands of villages. 

It was an extraordinary spectacle. Gandhi would lead the 
march, barefoot, wrapped in his loincloth, spectacles sliding 
from his nose, clomping along with the aid of a bamboo stave. 
Behind him came his followers in identical white loincloths. 
Closing the march, hoist like some triumphant trophy over a 
follower’s head, rode the Mahatma’s portable toilet, a graphic 
reminder of the importance he attached to sound sanitation. 

His crusade was an extraordinary success. The crowds 
rushed to see the man already known as a ‘Great Soul’. His 
voluntary poverty, his simplicity, his humility, his saintly air 
made him a kind of Holy Man, marching out of some distant 
Indian past to liberate a new India. 

lit the towns he told the crowds that, if India was to win 
self-rule, she would have to renounce foreign clothing. He 
asked for volunteers to take off their clothes and throw them 
in a heap at his feet. Shoes, socks, trousers, shirts, hats, coats 
cascaded into the pile until some men stood stark naked before 
Gandhi. With a delighted smile Gandhi then set the pile ablaze, 
a bizarre bonfire of ‘Made in England’ clothing. 

The British were quick to react. If they hesitated to arrest 
Gandhi for fear of making him a martyr, they struck hard at 
his followers. Thirty thousand people were arrested, meetings 
and parades broken up by force. Congress offices ransacked. 
On 1 February 1922, Gandhi courteously wrote to the Viceroy 
to inform him he was intensifying his action. Non- 
co-operation was to be escalated to civil disobedience. He 
counselled peasants to refuse to pay taxes, city dwellers to 


‘ Leave India to God y 

ignore British laws and soldiers to stop serving the crown. It 
was Gandhi’s non-violent declaration of war on India’s col- 
onial government. 

‘The British want us to put the struggle on the plane or 
machine-guns where they have the weapons and we do not, 
he warned. ‘Our only assurance of beating them is putting the 
struggle on a plane where we have the weapons and they have 


Thousands of Indians followed his call and thousands more 
went off to jail. The beleaguered governor of Bombay called 
it ‘the most colossal experiment in world history and one 
which came within an inch of succeeding . 

It failed because of an outburst of bloody violence in a litt e 
village north-east of Delhi. Against the wishes of almost his 
entire Congress hierarchy, Gandhi called off the movement 
because he felt his followers did not yet fully understand non- 

Sensing that his change of attitude had rendered him less 
dangerous, the British arrested him. Gandhi pleaded guilty to 
the charge of sedition, and in a moving appeal to his judge, 
asked for the maximum penalty. He was sentenced to six years 
in Yeravda'prison near Poona. He had no regrets. ‘Freedom, 
he w(pte, ‘is often to be found inside a prison’s walls, even on 
a gallo,ws; never in council chambers, courts and classrooms. 

Gandhi was released before the end of his sentence because 
of ill-health. For three years, he travelled and wrote, patiently 
training his followers, inculcating the principles of non- 
violence to avoid a recurrence of the outburst that had shocked 
him before his arrest. 

By the end of 1929, he was ready for another move forward. 
In Lahore, at the stroke of midnight, as the decade expired, 
he led his Congress in a vow for swaraj, nothing less than 
complete independence. Twenty-six days later, in gatherings 
all across India, millions of Congressmen repeated the 

pledge. _ . . , 

A new confrontation between Gandhi and the British was 

inevitable. Gandhi pondered for days waiting for his Inner 

62 Freedom at Midnight 

Voice’ to counsel him on the proper form of that confron- 
tation. The answer proposed by his ‘Inner Voice’ was the finest 
fruit of his creative genius. So simple was the thought, so 
dramatic its execution, it made Gandhi world-famous over- 
night. Paradoxically, it was based on a staple the Mahatma 
had given up years before in his efforts to repress his sexual 
desires as part of his vow of chastity: salt. 

If Gandhi spurned it, in India’s hot climate it was an essential 
ingredient in every man’s diet. It lay in great white sheets along 
the shore-lines, the gift of the eternal mother, the sea. Its 
manufacture and sale, however, was the exclusive monopoly 
of the state, which built a tax into its selling price. It was a 
small tax, but for a poor peasant it represented, each year, two 
weeks income. 

• ? n i! 2 ^ arch 1931 ’ at 6-30 in the morning, his bamboo stave 
in his hand, his back slightly bent, his familiar loincloth around 
his hips, Gandhi marched out of his ashram at the head of a 
cortege of 79 disciples and headed for the sea, 241 miles away 
Thousands of supporters from Ahmedabad lined the way and 
strewed the route with green leaves. 

Newsmen rushed from all over the world to follow the 
progress of his strange caravan. From village to village the 
crowds knelt by the roadside as Gandhi passed. His pace was 
a deliberately tantalizing approach to his climax. To the British 
it was infuriatingly slow. The weird, almost Chaplinesque 
image of a little, old, half- naked man clutching a bamboo pole, 
marching down to the sea to challenge the British Empire 
dominated the newsreels and press of the world day after 
day. 1 

On 5 April, at six o’clock in the evening, Gandhi and his 
party finally reached the banks of the Indian Ocean near the 
town of Dandi. At dawn the next morning, after a night of 
prayer, the group marched into the sea for a ritual bath. Then 
Gandhi waded ashore and, before thousands of spectators, 
reached down to scoop up a piece of caked salt. With a grave 
and stern mien, he held his fist to the crowd, then opened it 
tc expose in his palms the white crystals, the forbidden gift of 

‘ Leave India to God ’ 63 

the sea, the newest symbol in the struggle for Indian inde- 

Within a week all India was in turmoil. All over the conti- 
nent Gandhi’s followers began to collect and distribute salt. 
The country was flooded with pamphlets explaining how to 
make salt from sea water. From one end of India to another, 
bonfires of British cloth and exports sparkled in the streets. 

The British replied with the most massive round-up in 
Indian history, sweeping people to jail by the thousands. 
Gandhi was among them. Before returning to the confines of 
Yeravda prison, however, he managed to send a last message 
to his followers. 

‘The honour of India,’ he said, ‘has been symbolized by a 
fistful of salt in the hand of a man of non-violence. The fist 
which held the salt may be broken, but it will not yield up its 

London , 18 February 1947 

For three centuries, the walls of the House of Commons had 
echoed to the declarations of the handful of men who had 
assembled and guided the British Empire. Their debates and 
decisions had fixed the destiny of half a billion human beings 
scattered around the globe and helped impose the domination 
of a white, Christian, European elite on over a third of the 
earth’s inhabitable land surface. 

Now, tensely expectant, the members of the FJouse of Com- 
mons shivered in the melancholy shadows stretching out in 
dark pools from the corners of their unheated hall to hear 
their leader pronounce a funeral oration for the British Empire. 
His bulky figure swathed in a black overcoat, Winston Chur- 
chill slumped despondently on the Opposition benches. For 
four decades, since he had joined the Commons, his voice had 
given utterance in that hall to Britain’s imperial dream, just 
as, for the past decade, it had been the goad of England’s 
conscience, the catalyst of her courage. 

He was a man of rare clairvoyance but inflexible in many 

6 4 

Freedom at Midnight 

of his convictions. He gloried in every corner of the realm but 
for none of them did he have sentiments comparable to those 
with which he regarded India. Churchill loved India with a 
violent and unreal affection. He had gone out there as a young 
subaltern with his regiment, the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars; 
played polo on the dusty maidans, gone pig-sticking and tiger 
hunting. He had climbed the Khyber Pass and fought the 
Pathans on the North-west Frontier. He was, forty-one years 
after his departure, still sending two pounds every month to 
the Indian who’d been his bearer for two years when he was 
a young subaltern. His gesture revealed much of his sentiments 
about India. He loved it first of all as a reflection of his own 
experience there and he loved the idea of doughty, upright 
Englishmen running the place with a firm, paternalistic hand. 

His faith in the imperial dream was unshakeable. He had 
always maintained that Britain’s position in the world was 
determined by the Empire. He sincerely believed in the Vic- 
torian dogma that those ‘lesser breeds, without the law’ were 
better off under European rule than they would have been 
under the tyranny of local despots. Despite the perception he 
had displayed on so many world issues, India was a blind 
spot for Churchill. Nothing could shake his passionately held 
conviction that British rule in India had been just and exercised 
in India’s best interests; that her masses looked on their rulers 
with gratitude and affection; that the politicians agitating for 
independence were a petty-minded, half-educated elite, unre- 
flective of the desires or interests of the masses. Churchill 
understood India, his own Secretary of State for India had 
noted acidly, ‘about as well as George III understood the 
American colonies’. 

Since 1910 he had stubbornly resisted every effort to bring 
India towards independence. He contemptuously dismissed 
Gandhi and his Congress followers as ‘men of straw’. More 
than any other man in that chamber, Churchill was torn by 
the knowledge that his successor at 10 Downing Street was 
undertaking the task he had refused to contemplate, dismem- 
bering the Empire. If he and his Conservative Party had been 

‘ Leave India to God 


defeated in 1945, however, they still commanded an absolute 
majority in the House of Lords. That gave him the power, if 
he chose to exercise it, to delay Indian independence by two 
full years. Distaste spreading like a rash over his glowering 
face, he watched the spare Socialist who’d succeeded him as 
Prime Minister rise to speak. 

The brief text in Clement Attlee’s hand had been largely 
written by the young admiral he was sending to New Delhi to 
negotiate Britain’s departure from India and whose name he 
was about to reveal. Louis Mountbatten had, with character- 
istic boldness, proposed it as a substitute for the lengthy docu- 
ment Attlee himself had drafted. It defined the new Viceroy’s 
task in simple terms. Above all, it contained the new and salient 
point Mountbatten had maintained was essential if there was 
to be any hope of breaking the Indian log-jam. He had wrestled 
with Attlee for six weeks to nail it down with the precision he 

The chilly assembly stirred as Attlee began to read the his- 
toric announcement. ‘His Majesty’s Government wishes to 
make it clear,’ he began, ‘that it is their definite intention to 
take the necessary steps to effect the transference of power 
into responsible Indian hands by a date not later than June 

A stunned silence followed as his words struck home to the 
men in the Commons. That they were the inevitable result of 
history and Britain’s own avowed course in India did not 
mitigate the sadness produced by the realization that barely 
fourteen months remained to the British Raj. An era in British 
life was ending. What the Manchester Guardian would call the 
following morning ‘the greatest disengagement in history’ was 
about to begin. 

The bulky figure slumped on his bench rose when his turn 
came to protest, to hurl out one last eloquent plea for empire. 
Shaking slightly from cold and emotion, Churchill declared 
that the whole business was ‘an attempt by the government 
to make use of brilliant war figures in order to cover up a 
melancholy and disastrous transaction’. 


Freedom at Midnight 

By fixing a date for independence Attlee was adopting one 
of Gandhi’s ‘most scatter-brained observations - “Leave India 
to God” \ 

‘It is with deep grief,’ Churchill lamented, ‘that I watch the 
clattering down of the British Empire with all its glories and 
all the services it has rendered mankind. Many have defended 
Britain against her foes. None can defend her against herself 
... let us not add by shameful flight, by a premature, hurried 
scuttle - at least let us not add to the pangs of sorrow so many 
of us feel, the taint and sneer of shame.’ 

They were the words of a master orator, but they were also 
a futile railing against the setting of a sun. When the division 
bell rang, the Commons acknowledged the dictate of history. 
By an overwhelming majority, it voted to end British rule in 
India no later than June 1948. 

Penitent's Progress II 

The deeper his little party penetrated into Noakhali’s bayous, 
the more difficult Gandhi’s mission became. The success he’d 
enjoyed with the Moslems in the first villages through which 
he’d passed had alerted the leaders in those that lay ahead. 
Sensing in it a challenge to'their own authority, they had begun 
to stir the populace’s hostility to the Mahatma and his mission. 

This morning, his pilgrim’s route took him past a Moslem 
school where seven- and eight-year-old children sat around 
their sheikh in an open-air classroom. Beaming like an excited 
grandfather rushing to embrace his favourite grandchildren, 
Gandhi hurried over to speak to the youngsters. The sheikh 
leapt up at his approach. With quick and angry gestures, he 
shooed his pupils into his hut, as though the old man 
approaching were a bogeyman come to cast some evil spell 
over them. Deeply pained by their flight, Gandhi stood before 
the doorway of the sheikh’s hut, making sad little waves of his 
hand to the children whose faces he could make out in the 
shadows. Dark eyes wide with curiosity and incomprehension, 
they stared back at him. Finally Gandhi touched his hand to 

4 Leave India to God 9 


his heart and sent them the Moslem greeting l salaam\ Not a 
single childish hand answered his pathetic sign. Gandhi turned 
away and resumed his march. 

There had been other incidents. Four days before someone 
had sabotaged a bamboo support holding up a rickety bridge 
of bamboo poles over which Gandhi was due to cross. Fortu- 
nately, it had been discovered before the bridge could collapse 
and send Gandhi and his party tumbling into the muddy 
waters ten feet below. On another morning, his route had 
taken him through a grove of bamboo and coconut trees. 
Every tree seemed to be festooned with a banner proclaiming 
slogans like ‘Leave, you have been warned’, ‘Accept Pakistan’, 
or ‘Go for your own good’. 

Those signs had no effect on Gandhi. Physical courage, the 
courage to accept without protest a beating, to face danger 
with quiet resolution was, Gandhi maintained, the prime 
characteristic required of a non-violent man. Since the first 
beating he’d received in South Africa, physical courage had 
been an attribute the frail Gandhi had displayed in abundance. 

Muffling the inner sorrow the hostile signs and the children’s 
rejection had provoked, Gandhi trudged serenely towards his 
next stop. It had been a damp, humid night and the alluvial 
soil on the narrow path along which his party walked was 
slick and slippery under the heavy dew. Suddenly, the little 
procession came to a halt. At its head, Gandhi laid aside his 
bamboo stave and bent down. Some unknown Moslem hands 
had littered the track on which he was to walk barefoot with 
shards of glass and lumps of human excrement. Tranquilly, 
Gandhi broke off the branch of a stubby palm. With it, he 
stooped and humbly undertook the most defiling act a Hindu 
can perform. Using his branch as a broom, the 77-year-old 
penitent began to sweep that human excrement from his path. 

For decades, the most persistent English foe of the elderly man 
patiently cleaning the faeces from his way had been the master 
orator of the House of Commons. Winston Churchill had 
uttered in his long career enough memorable phrases to fill a 


Freedom at Midnight 

volume of prose, but few of them had imprinted themselves 
as firmly on the public’s imagination as those with which he 
had described Gandhi just sixteen years earlier, in February 
1931: ‘half-naked fakir’. 

The occasion that prompted Churchill’s outburst occurred 
on 17 February 1931. One hand holding his bamboo stave, the 
other clutching the edges of his white shawl, Mahatma Gandhi 
had that morning shuffled up the red sandstone steps to Vice- 
roy’s House, New Delhi. He was still wan from his weeks in 
a British prison but the man who had organized the Salt March 
did not come to that house as a suppliant for the Viceroy’s 
favours. He came as India. 

With his fistful of salt and his bamboo stave, Gandhi had 
rent the veil of the temple. So widespread had support for his 
movement become, that the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, had felt 
obliged to release him from prison and invite him to Delhi to 
treat with him as the acknowledged leader of the Indian masses. 
He was the first and the greatest in a line of Arab, African and 
Asian leaders who in the decades to come would follow 
his route from a British prison to a British conference 

Winston Churchill had correctly read the portents of the 
meeting. He had assailed ‘the nauseating and humiliating spec- 
tacle of this one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious 
fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy’s palace, 
there to negotiate and parley on equal terms with the represen- 
tative of the King Emperor’. 

‘The loss of India,’ he said with a clairvoyance that fore- 
shadowed his speech sixteen years later, ‘would be final and 
fatal to us. It could not fail to be part of a process that would 
reduce us to the scale of a minor power.’ 

His words, however, had no impact on the negotiations in 
New Delhi. These covered eight meetings over three weeks 
and produced what became known as the Gandhi-Irwin pact. 
Its text read like a treaty between two sovereign powers, and 
that was the measure of Gandhi’s triumph. Under it, Irwin 
agreed to release from jail the thousands of Gandhi’s followers 

‘ Leave India to God ’ 


who’d followed their leader to prison/ Gandhi for his part 
agreed to call off his movement and attend a round table 
conference in London to discuss India’s future. 

Six months later, to the astonishment of a watching British 
nation, Mahatma Gandhi walked into Buckingham Palace to 
take tea with the King Emperor dressed in a loincloth and 
sandals, a living portrayal of Kipling’s Gunga Din with ‘nothing 
much before and rather less than ’arf o’ that behind’. Later, 
when questioned on the appropriateness of his apparel, Gandhi 
replied with a smile ‘the king was wearing enough for both of 

The publicity surrounding their meeting was in a sense the 
measure of the real impact of Gandhi’s London visit. The round 
table conference he’d come to attend was a failure. London was 
not yet ready to contemplate Indian independence. 

The real work Gandhi proclaimed lay ‘outside the confer- 
ence . . . The seed which is being sown now may result in a 
softening of the British spirit.’ No one did more to soften it 
than Gandhi. The British press and public were fascinated by 
this man who wanted to overthrow their empire by turning 
the other cheek. 

* There would be no more immediate beneficiary of the pact than a young 
Sikh student named Gurcharan Singh. Arms bound behind his back, Gurch- 
aran Singh was walking that morning down a long corridor in Lahore prison 
towards a courtyard where a hangman waited to put an end to his life. 

As Gurcharan Singh came within sight of the gallows tree, he heard foot- 
steps running down the corridor behind him. He glanced back and saw his 
English jailer, a major named Martin, running after his party waving a blue 
piece of paper. 

‘Congratulations!’ Martin shouted. 

Gurcharan Singh almost fainted. ‘You British are impossible,’ he gasped, 
‘you’re hanging me and you want to congratulate me on it.’ 

No, the flustered Martin explained, all executions had been suspended 
because of the pact just signed in Delhi. Several weeks later, Gurcharan Singh 
was freed. His first, grateful gesture was a pilgrimage to Gandhi’s ashram. 
There the ardent student revolutionary fell under the Mahatma’s spell and 
vowed to follow in Gandhi’s footsteps. Ironically it was he who one day 
would hold in his arms the dying figure of the leader who had saved his life. 


Freedom at Midnight 

He had walked off his steamer in his loincloth carrying his 
bamboo stave. Behind him there were no aides-de-camp, no ser- 
vants, only a handful of disciples and a goat, who tottered down 
the gangplank after Gandhi, an Indian goat to supply the 
Mahatma’s daily bowl of milk. He ignored the hotels of the 
mighty to live in a settlement house in London’s East End slums. 

The man who had first come to London as an inarticulate 
tongue-tied student almost never stopped talking. He met 
Charlie Chaplin, Jan Smuts, -George Bernard Shaw, the Arch- 
bishop of Canterbury, Harold Laski, Maria Montessori, coal 
miners, children, Lancashire textile workers thrown out of work 
by his campaigns in India; virtually everyone of importance 
except Winston Churchill, who adamantly refused to see him. 

The impression Gandhi made was profound. The newsreels 
of the Salt March had already made him famous. To the masses 
of a Britain beset by industrial unrest, unemployment and 
grave social injustice, this messenger from the East in his 
Christ-like cotton sheet with his even more Christ-like message 
of love, was a fascinating and vaguely disturbing figure. Gandhi 
himself,- perhaps, put his finger on the roots of much of that 
fascination in a radio broadcast to the USA. 

World attention had been drawn to India’s freedom struggle, 
he said, ‘because the means adopted by us for attaining that 
liberty are unique . . . the world is sick unto death of blood- 
spilling. The world is seeking a way out and I flatter myself 
with the belief that perhaps it will be the privilege of the 
ancient land of India to show the way out to a hungering 

The western world Gandhi was visiting was not yet ready 
for the way out proposed by this revolutionary who travelled 
with a goat instead of a machine-gun. Already Europe’s 
streets echoed to the stomp of jackboots and the shrieks of 
impassioned ideologues. Nonetheless, when he left, thousands 
of French, Swiss and Italians flocked to the railroad stations 
on his route to the Italian port of Brindisi to gape at the 
frail, toothless man leaning from the window of his third-class 

‘Leave India to God ’ 


In Paris, so many people swarmed to the station that Gandhi 
had to climb on a baggage cart to address them. In Switzerland, 
where he visited his friend, the author Romain Rolland, the 
dairymen of Leman clamoured for the privilege of serving the 
‘king of India’. In Rome, he warned Mussolini fascism would 
‘collapse like a house of cards’, watched a football game and 
wept at the sight of the statue of Christ on the Cross in the 
Sistine Chapel. 

Despite that triumphant progress across Europe, Gandhi 
suffered much on the voyage home. ‘I have come back empty- 
handed,’ he told the thousands who greeted him in Bombay. 
India would have to return to civil disobedience. Less than a 
week later the man who had been the King Emperor’s tea-time 
guest in London was once again His Imperial Majesty’s guest 
- this time back in Yeravda prison. 

For the next three years, Gandhi was in and out of prison 
while in London Churchill thundered, ‘Gandhi and all he 
stands for must be crushed.’ Despite Churchill’s opposition, 
however, the British produced a basic reform for India offering 
her provinces some local autonomy, the Government of India 
Act of 1935. Finally released from jail, Gandhi turned from his 
political combat to devote three years to two projects particu- 
larly close to him, the plight of India’s millions of Untouch- 
ables and the situation in her villages. 

With the approach of World War II, Gandhi became 
more convinced than ever that the non-violence which had 
been the guiding principle of India’s domestic struggle was 
the only philosophy capable of saving man from self- 
destruction. , 

When Mussolini overran Ethiopia, he urged the Ethiopians 
to ‘allow themselves to be slaughtered’. The result, he said, 
would be more effective than resistance since ‘after all, Musso- 
lini didn’t want a desert’. Sickened by the Nazis’ persecution 
of the Jews, he declared: ‘If ever there could be justifiable war 
in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to 
prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be 
completely justified.’ 


Freedom at Midnight 

‘Still,’ he said, ‘I do not believe in war.’ He proposed ‘a calm 
and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women 
possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah.’ 
‘That,’ he said, ‘would convert [the Germans] to an appreci- 
ation of human dignity.’ 

Not even the atrocities which were perpetrated in the con- 
centration camps of Europe were to make him doubt the 
essential correctness of his attitude. 

When war finally broke out, Gandhi prayed that the holo- 
caust might at least produce, like some sudden burst of sun- 
shine after the storm, the heroic gesture, the non-violent 
sacrifice, that would illuminate for mankind the path away 
from a tightening cycle of self-destruction. 

While Churchill summoned his countrymen to ‘blood, 
toil, tears and sweat’, Gandhi, hoping to find in the English a 
people brave enough to put his theory to the ultimate test, 
proposed another course. ‘Invite Hitler and Mussolini to take 
what they want of the countries you call your possessions,’ 
he wrote to the English at the height of the blitz. ‘Let them 
take possession of your beautiful island with its many beautiful 
buildings. You will give all this, but neither your minds nor 
your souls.’ 

That course would have been a logical application of 
Gandhi’s doctrine. To the British, and above all to their 
indomitable leader, his words rang out like the gibberish of 
an irrelevant old fool. 

Gandhi could not even convince the leadership of his own 
Congress movement that pacifism was the right course. Most 
of his followers were dedicated anti-fascists and anxious to 
take India into the fight if they could do so as free men. For 
the first time, but not the last, Gandhi and his disciples parted 

It took Churchill to drive them back together. His position 
on India remained as rigid as ever. He refused to consider 
any of the compromises which would have allowed India’s 
Nationalists to join the war effort. When he held his first 
meeting with Franklin Roosevelt to frame the Atlantic Charter, 

‘ Leave India to God ’ 


he made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, India was 
not to fall under its generous provisions. His American partner 
was stunned by his sensitivity on the subject. Soon, another 
of his phrases was being repeated in the Allies’ councils: ‘I 
have not become His Majesty’s First Minister to preside over 
the dissolution of the British Empire.’ 

It was not until March 1942, when the Japanese Imperial 
Army was at India’s gates, that Churchill, under pressure from 
Washington and his own colleagues, sent a serious offer to 
New Delhi. To deliver it, he selected a particularly sympathetic 
courier, Sir Stafford Cripps, a vegetarian and austere Socialist 
with long, friendly relations with the Congress leadership. Con- 
sidering its author, the proposal Cripps carried was remarkably 
generous. It offered the Indians the most Britain could be 
expected to concede in the midst of a war, a solemn pledge 
of what amounted to independence, dominion status, after 
Japan’s defeat. It contained, however, in recognition of the 
Moslem League’s increasingly strident calls for an Islamic state, 
a provision which could eventually accommodate their 

Forty-eight hours after his arrival, Gandhi told Cripps that 
the offer was unacceptable because it contemplated the ‘per- 
petual vivisection of India’. Besides, the British were offering 
India future independence to secure immediate Indian co- 
operation in the violent defence of Indian soil. That was not 
an agreement calculated to sway the apostle of non-violence. 
If the Japanese were to be resisted, it could be only in one 
way for Gandhi, non-violently. 

The Mahatma cherished a secret dream. He was not opposed 
to the spilling of oceans of blood, provided it was done in a just 
cause. He saw rank on serried rank of disciplined, non-violent 
Indians marching out to die on the bayonets of the Japanese 
until that catalytic instant when the enormity of their sacrifice 
would overwhelm their foes^ vindicate non-violence, and 
change the course of human history. 

Churchill’s plan, he decreed, was ‘a post-dated cheque on 
a failing bank’. If he had nothing else to offer, Gandhi told 


Freedom at Midnight 

Cripps, he might as well ‘take the next plane home’/ 

The day after Cripps’ departure was a Monday, Gandhi’s 
‘day of silence’, a ritual he had observed once a week for years 
to conserve his vocal chords and promote a sense of harmony 
in his being. Unhappily for Gandhi and for India, his ‘Inner 
Voice’, the voice of his conscience, was not observing a similar 
vigil. It spoke to Gandhi and the advice it uttered proved 

It came down to two words, the two words which became 
the slogan of Gandhi’s next struggle: ‘Quit India’. The British 
should drop the reins of power in India immediately, Gandhi 
proposed. Let them ‘leave India to God or even anarchy’. If 
the British left India to its fate the Japanese would have no 
reason to attack. 

Just after midnight, 8 August 1942, in a stifling hot Bombay 
meeting hall, Gandhi, naked to the waist, sent out a call to 
arms to his followers of the All India Congress Committee. 
His voice was quiet and composed, but the words he uttered 
carried a passion and fervour uncharacteristic of Gandhi. 

‘I want freedom immediately,’ he said, ‘this very night, 
before dawn if it can be had.’ 

‘Here is a mantra , a short one I give you,’ he told his 
followers. ‘“Do or die”. We sljiall either free India or die in 
the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our 

What Gandhi got before dawn was not freedom but another 
invitation to a British jail. In a carefully prepared move the 
British swept Gandhi and the entire Congress leadership into 
prison for the duration of the war. A brief outburst of violence 
followed their arrest but, within three weeks,* the British had 
the situation under control. 

Gandhi’s tactic played into the hands of the Moslem League 

* Cripps did not leave immediately. He nearly succeeded in getting the 
Congress leadership to break with the Mahatma. The issue was the degree 
to which they would be allowed to supervise India’s war efforts. Once again, 
it was Churchill who prevented an agreement being reached. 

‘ Leave India to God ’ 


by sweeping his Congress leaders from the political scene at a 
crucial moment. While they languished in jail, their Moslem 
rivals supported Britain’s war effort, earning by their attitude 
a considerable debt of gratitude. Not only had Gandhi’s plan 
failed to get the English to quit India; it had gone a long way 
to making sure that, before leaving the country, they would 
feel compelled to divide it. 

This would be Gandhi’s last sojourn in a British prison. By 
the time it ended the old man would have spent a total of 
2338 days in jail, 249 in South Africa, 2089 in India. Gandhi’s 
keepers confined him not to the familiar grounds of the 
Yeravda jail where he had already spent so much time but in 
the nearby palace of the Aga Khan. Five months after his prison 
term began, Gandhi announced he was going to undertake a 
21-day fast. The reasons behind it were obscure, but the British 
were in no mood to compromise. Churchill informed New 
Delhi that, if Gandhi wanted to starve himself to death, he 
was free to go ahead and do so. 

Midway through the fast, Gandhi began to sink. Unyielding, 
the British started discreet preparations for his death. Two 
Brahmin priests were brought to the prison and held in readi- 
ness to officiate at the cremation. Under the cover of darkness 
the sandalwood for his funeral pyre was secretly taken into the 
palace. Everyone was ready for his death except the 74-year-old 
Gandhi. He had weighed less than 110 pounds when the fast 
began. Yet 21 days on a diet of water mixed with salt and an 
occasional drop of lemon and moosambi juice couldn’t kill 
his towering spirit. He survived his self-imposed ordeal. 

Another one awaited him, however. The sandalwood that 
had been destined for his cremation would feed the flames of 
another funeral pyre, his wife’s. On 22 February 1944 the 
woman he had married as an illiterate, thirteen-year-old child 
died, her head resting in Gandhi’s lap. Gandhi had not been 
prepared to disavow a principle to save her life. He believed 
in nature cures and he also believed that to administer medi- 
cine by hypodermic needle performed a violent action upon 
the human body. Aware that his wife was dying from acute 


Freedom at Midnight 

bronchitis, the British flew a supply of rare and precious peni- 
cillin to the prison. But at the last minute, when Gandhi 
learned the drug which could have saved his dying wife would 
have to be administered intravenously, he had refused her 
doctors permission to give it to her. 

After her death, Gandhi's own health failed rapidly. He 
contracted malaria, hookworm and amoebic dysentery. In his 
weakened and depressed state, it was clear he would not survive 
long. A reluctant Churchill was finally prevailed on to release 
him so he would not die in a British jail. 

He was not going to die in a British India, either. Ensconced 
in a hut on the beachfront estate of a wealthy supporter near 
Bombay, Gandhi slowly recovered his health. As he did so, 
Churchill, who had not bothered to reply to his Viceroy’s 
urgent cables on India’s growing famine, sent New Delhi a 
petulant cable. Why, he asked, hadn’t Gandhi died yet? 

A few days later, Gandhi’s host entered his hut to find one 
of the Mahatma’s followers standing on his head, another in 
transcendental meditation, a third asleep on the floor and the 
Mahatma himself on his open toilet staring raptly into space. 

He burst into gales of laughter. Why,. Gandhi asked as he 
emerged from his toilet, was he laughing? 

‘Ah BapUy laughed his host, ‘look at this room: one man 
standing on his head, another meditating, a third sleeping, you 
on your toilet - and these are the people who are going to 
make India free!’ 

Northolt Airport , 20 March 1947 

The aircraft waited in the early morning light on the runway 
of Northolt airport where, two and a half months earlier, Louis 
Mountbatten had landed on New Year’s Day. Charles Smith, 
his valet, had already stowed on board the Mountbattens’ 
personal luggage, 66 pieces, a collection so complete it included 
a set of silver ashtrays with the new Viceroy’s family crest. His 
wife had casually placed in the overhead rack an old shoe-box. 
Finding it would cause a moment of panic on the flight 

‘ Leave India to God’ 


out. Packed inside was a family heirloom, a diamond tiara 
Lady Mountbatten would wear when she was proclaimed 

Stowed away also were all the documents, the briefs, the 
position papers the new Viceroy and his staff would have to 
guide them in the months ahead. The most important among 
them covered only two pages and was signed by Clement 
Attlee. It set out the terms of Mountbatten’s mission. No 
Viceroy had ever received a mandate like it. Mountbatten had, 
for all practical purposes, written it himself. Its terms were 
clear and simple. He was to make every effort to arrange 
for the transfer of British sovereignty in India to a single, 
independent nation within the Commonwealth by 30 June 
1948. As a guide he was to follow as far as possible a plan 
formulated eight months earlier by a cabinet mission sent to 
New Delhi under the chairmanship of Sir Stafford Cripps. 
It proposed, as a compromise with the Moslem demand for 
Pakistan, a federated India with a weak central government. 
There was, however, no question of forcing an agreement out 
of India’s warring politicians. If by 1 October, six months after 
taking power, Mountbatten saw no way of getting them to 
agree on a plan for a united India, then he was to recommend 
his alternative solution to India’s dilemma. 

As his York MW 102* went through its final checks, Mount- 

* Mountbatten was particularly attached to the converted Lancaster bomber. 
It had flown him on countless missions during his days as Supreme Com- 
mander South-East Asia. He had fitted it out with bunks for a relief crew 
which would shorten the time required for the London- Delhi journey by 
eliminating crews’ rest stops on the ground. 

The plane, in fact very nearly kept him from going to India at all. One 
day, Mountbatten happened to be in his London office when an RAF Group 
Captain called his ADC, Lt-Col. Peter Howes, to advise him that the York 
MW 102 would not be available for use by the new Viceroy. Mountbatten 
took the phone from his ADC’s hands. 

‘Group Captain,’ he said, ‘I wish to thank you.’ 

‘Thank me?’ said the perplexed officer. 

‘Yes,’ continued Mountbatten. ‘You see when I accepted this appointment, 
I stipulated as one of my conditions that I should be allowed to take the 

78 Freedom at Midnight 

batten paced the tarmac alongside with two of his old wartime 
comrades who were going off to India with him. Capt. Ronald 
Brockman, head of his personal staff, and Lt-Commander 
Peter Howes, his senior ADC. On how many trips, Brockman 
thought, had that converted Lancaster bomber carried Mount- 
batten to front-line posts in the jungles of Burma, to the 
great conferences of the war. Beside him, the usually ebullient 
Admiral was moody and introspective. The crewman 
announced the flight was ready. 

‘Well,’ sighed Mountbatten, ‘we’re off to India. I don’t want 
to go. They don’t want me out there. We’ll probably come 
home with bullets in our backs.’ 

The three men mounted the aircraft. The engines came to 
life. The York fled down the runway, cut across the sun and 
pointed east to India to close the great adventure Capt. Hawk- 
ins had begun by sailing east in his galleon the Hector , three 
and a half centuries earlier. 

York to Delhi with me. You tell me I cannot have this aircraft and I am 
most grateful to you. I did not want to be Viceroy of India and now you’ve 
saved me from the job.’ 

A stunned silence settled over the room as he hung up. Within minutes 
he had his plane. 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 


Penitent's' Progress 111 

Nothing could stop him. Fired by his unquenchable spirit, the 
old man drove his bare and aching feet from village to village, 
applying the balm of his love to India s sores. Slowly, the 
wounds began to heal. In the wake of Gandhi s wan and bent 
silhouette, the passions cooled. Timidly, uncertainly, peace 
spread its mantle over the blood-drenched marshes of 

Its return did not end Gandhi’s suffering, however. A private 
drama had accompanied him on his march along those hate- 
filled footpaths, a drama whose dimensions would eventually 
scandalize some of his oldest associates, alarm millions of 
Indians, and baffle the historians who would one day attempt 
to comprehend all the facets of Mohandas Gandhi s complex 
character. It would also produce one of the gravest personal 
crises in the life of the 77-year-old man who was the conscience 
of India. 

Yet its roots were in no way sunk in the great political 
struggle of which he’d been the principal figure for a quarter 
of a century. They lay in that force which Gandhi had struggled 
to sublimate and control for forty years, sex. Its locus was a 
nineteen-year-old. girl, Gandhi’s great-niece, Manu. Manu had 
been raised by Gandhi and his wife as their own granddaugh- 
ter. She had nursed Kasturbai Gandhi on her deathbed and, 
before dying, Kasturbai had confided her to her husband s 

‘I’ve been a father to many,’ Gandhi promised the girl, ‘to 
you I am a mother.’ He fussed over her like a mother, supervis- 
ing her dress, her diet, her education, her religious training. 


Freedom at Midnight 

The problem which arose in Noakhali had begun in a conver- 
sation between them just before Gandhi set out on his pilgrim- 
age. With the shyness of a young girl confessing something to 
her mother, Manu had admitted to Gandhi she had never felt 
the sexual impulses normal in a girl of her age. 

To Gandhi, with his convoluted philosophy of sex, her 
words had special importance. Since he had sworn his own 
vow of chastity, Gandhi had maintained that sexual continence 
was the most important discipline his truly non-violent fol- 
lowers, male and female, had to master. His ideal non-violent 
army would be composed of sexless soldiers because otherwise, 
Gandhi feared, their moral strength would desert them at a 
critical moment. 

Gandhi saw in Manu’s words the chance to make of her the 
perfect female votary. ‘If out of India’s millions of daughters, 
I can train even one into an ideal woman by becoming an 
ideal mother to you,’ he told her, ‘I shall have rendered a 
unique service to womankind.’ But first, he felt he had to be 
sure she was telling the truth. Only his closest collaborators 
were accompanying him in Noakhali, he informed her, but 
she would be welcome provided she submitted to his disci- 
pline and went through the test to which he meant to subject 

They would, he decreed, share each night the crude straw 
pallet which passed for his bed. He regarded himself as a 
mother; she had said she found nothing but a mother’s love 
in him. If they were both truthful, if he remained firm in his 
ancient vow of chastity and she had never known sexual arou- 
sal, then they would be able to lie together in the innocence 
of a mother and daughter. If one of them was not being 
truthful, they would soon discover it. 

If, however, Manu was being truthful then, Gandhi believed, 
she would flourish under his close and constant supervision, 
fcjis own sexless state would stifle any residual desire still lurk- 
ing in her. Pygmalion-like, a transformation would come over 
her. She would develop clarity of thought- and firmness of 
speech. A new spirit would suffuse the. girl, giving her a pure, 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

crystalline devotion to the great task which awaited her. 

Manu had accepted and her lithe figure had followed 
Gandhi’s traces across the swamp-lands of Noakhali. As 
Gandhi had known it would, his decision had immediately 
provoked the consternation of his little party. 

‘They think all this is a sign of infatuation on my part,’ he 
told Manu after a few nights together. ‘I laugh at their ignor- 
ance. They do not understand.’ 

Very few people would. Only the purest of Gandhi s fol- 
lowers would be able to follow the complex reasoning behind 
this latest manifestation of a great spiritual struggle, which for 
Gandhi, went all the way back to that evening in South Africa 
in 1906 when he had announced to his wife his decision to take 
the vow of Brahmacharya, chastity. In swearing that pledge,* 
Gandhi was setting out on a path almost as old as Hinduism 
itself. For countless centuries, a Hindu’s route to self- 
realization had passed by the sublimation of that vital force 
responsible for the creation of life. Only by forcing his sexual 
energy inward to fuel the furnace of his spiritual force, the 
Hindu ancients maintained, could a man achieve the spiritual 
intensity necessary to self-realization. 

To aid men sworn to lead the chaste life, those Hindu sages 
had laid down a code of conduct for Brahmacharya called 
the nine-fold wall of protection. A true Brahmachari was not 
supposed to live among women, animals or eunuchs. He was 
not allowed to sit on the same mat with a woman or even 
gaze upon any part of a woman’s body. He was counselled to 
avoid the sensual blandishments of a hot bath, an oily massage 
or the alleged aphrodisiac properties of milk, curds, ghee or 
fatty foods. 

Gandhi had not become chaste so as to live in a Himalayan 

* The impulses thrusting Gandhi to take his vow were not Hindu alone. As 
Christ’s dictum of turning the other cheek had been vital in helping him 
formulate his non-violent ideal, so Jesus' words referring to ‘those who 
become eunuchs for my sake . . . for love of the Kingdom of Heaven’, had 
inspired him in taking his ancient Hindu pledge. 


Freedom at Midnight 

cave, however. That kind of chastity involved little self- 
discipline or moral merit, he maintained. He had taken his 
vow because he firmly believed the sublimation of his sexual 
energies would give him the moral and spiritual power to 
-accomplish his mission. His kind of Brahmachari was a man 
who had so suppressed his sexual urge that he could move 
normally in the society of women without feeling any sexual 
desire in himself or arousing it in them. A Brahmachari, he 
wrote, ‘does not flee the company of women’, because for him 
‘the distinction between man and. woman almost disappears’. 

The real Brahmachari’ s ‘sexual organs will begin to look 
different’, Gandhi declared. ‘They remain as mere symbols of 
his sex and his sexual secretions are sublimated into a vital 
force pervading his whole being.’ The perfect Brahmachari in 
Gandhi’s mind was a man who could ‘lie by the side even of 
a Venus in all her naked beauty, without being physically or 
mentally disturbed’. 

It was an extraordinary ideal and Gandhi’s fight to attain it 
was doubly difficult because the sex drive he was struggling 
to suppress had been strongly and deeply rooted. For years 
after taking his vow, Gandhi experimented with different diets, 
looking for one which would have the slightest possible impact 
on his sexual organs. While thousands of Indians sought out 
exotic foods to stimulate their desires, Gandhi spurned in turn 
spices, green vegetables, certain fruits, in his efforts to stifle 

Thirty years of discipline, prayer and spiritual exercise were 
needed before Gandhi reached the point at which he felt he 
had rooted out all sexual desire from his mind and body. 
His confidence in his achievement was shattered one night in 
Bombay in 1936, in what he referred to as ‘my darkest hour’. 
That night, at the age of 67, thirty years after he’d sworn his 
Brahmachari’ s vow, Gandhi awoke from a dream with what 
would have been to most men of that age a source of some 
satisfaction, but was to Gandhi a calamity, an erection. There, 
quivering between his loins, was proof he had still not reached 
the ideal towards which he’d been striving for three decades. 


A last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

Gandhi was so overwhelmed by anguish at ‘this frightful 
experience’, that he swore a vow of total silence for six weeks. 

He pondered for months over the meaning of his weakness, 
debating whether he should retreat into a kind of Himalayan 
cave of his own making. He finally concluded his horrible 
nightmare was a challenge to his spiritual force thrown up by 
the forces of evil. He decided to accept the challenge, to press 
on to his goal of extirpating the last traces of sexuality from 
his being. 

As his confidence in the mastery of his desires came back, 
he gradually extended the range of physical contact he allowed 
himself with women. He nursed them when they were ill and 
allowed them to nurse him. He took his bath in full view of his 
fellow ashramites, male and female. He had his daily massage 
virtually naked, with young girls most frequently serving as his 
masseuses. He often gave interviews or consulted the leaders of 
his Congress Party while the girls massaged him. He wore few 
clothes and urged his disciples, male and female, to do likewise 
because clothes he said, only encouraged a false sense of mod- 
esty. The only time he ever addressed himself directly to Win- 
ston Churchill was in reply to his famous phrase ‘half-naked 
fakir’. He was trying to be both, Gandhi said, because the 
naked state represented the true innocence for which he was 
striving. Finally, he decreed that there would be no problem 
in men and women who were faithful to their vow of chastity 
sleeping in the same room at night, if they happened, in the 
performance of their duties, to find themselves together at 

The decision to have Manu share his pallet so he could 
guide more totally her spiritual growth was, to Gandhi, a 
natural outgrowth of that philosophy. During the agonizing 
days of his penitent’s pilgrimage, her delicate figure was rarely 
out of his sight. From village to village, she shared the crude 
shelters offered him by the peasants of Noakhali. She massaged 
him, prepared his mudbaths, cared for him when he was 
striken with diarrhoea. She slept and rose with him, prayed 
by his side, shared the contents of his beggar’s bowl. One bitter 

8 4 

Freedom at Midnight 

February night she awoke to find the old man shaking violently 
by her side. She massaged him, heaped on his shivering frame 
whatever scraps of cloth she could find in the hut. Finally, 
Gandhi dozed off and, she later noted, ‘we slept cosily in each 
other’s warmth until prayer time’. 

For Gandhi, secure in his own conscience, there was nothing 
improper or even remotely sexual in his relations with Manu. 
Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that the faintest tremor of 
sexual arousal passed between them. To the Mahatma, the 
reasoning which had led him to perform what was, for him, 
a duty to Manu, was sufficient justification for his action. 
Perhaps, however, deep in his subconscious, other forces he 
ignored helped propel him to it. 

In the twilight of his life, Gandhi was a lonely man. He had 
lost his wife and closest friend in wartime prison. He was 
losing the support of some of his oldest followers. He risked 
losing the dream he’d pursued for decades. He had never had 
a daughter and, perhaps, the one failure in his life had been 
in his role as a father. His eldest son, embittered because he’d 
felt his father’s devotion to others had deprived him of his 
share of paternal affection, was a hopeless alcoholic who had 
staggered drunk to his dying mother’s bedside. Two of his 
other sons were in South Africa and rarely in contact with 
Gandhi. Only with his youngest son did he enjoy a normal 
father-son relation. In any event, whatever the explanation, a 
deep, spiritual bond was destined to link the Mahatma and 
the shy, devoted girl so anxious to share his misery during the 
closing months of his life. 

As word of what was happening spread beyond his entour- 
age, a campaign of calumnies, spread by the leaders of the 
Moslem League, grew up about Gandhi. The news reached 
Delhi, spreading intense shock among the leaders of Congress 
waiting to begin their critical talks with India’s new Viceroy. 

Gandhi finally confronted the rumours in an evening prayer 
meeting. Assailing the small talk, whispers and innuendo 
around him , he told the crowd that his great-niece Manu 
shared his bed with him each night and explained why she 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

was there. His words calmed his immediate circle, but when 
he sent them to his newspaper Harijan to be published, the 
storm broke again. Two of the editors quit in protest. Its 
trustees, fearful of a scandal, did something they had never 
dreamed of doing before. They refused to publish a text written 
by the Mahatma. 

The crisis reached its climax in Haimchar, the last stop on 
Gandhi’s tour. There, Gandhi revealed his intention to carry 
his mission to the province of Bihar where, this time, he would 
work with his fellow Hindus who had killed the members of 
a Moslem minority in their midst. 

His words alarmed the Congress leadership in Delhi who 
feared the effect his relationship with Manu could have on 
Bihar’s orthodox Hindu community. A series of emissaries 
discreetly asked him to abandon it before leaving for Bihar. 
He refused. 

Finally, it was Manu herself, perhaps prodded by one of 
those emissaries, who gently suggested to the elderly Mahatma 
that they suspend their practice. She remained absolutely at 
one with him, she promised. She was renouncing nothing of 
what they were trying to achieve. The concession she proposed 
was only temporary, a concession to the smaller minds around 
them who could not understand the goals he sought. She 
would stay behind when he left for Bihar. Saddened, Gandhi 

New Delhi, March - April 1947 

In his immaculate white naval uniform, ‘he looked like a film 
star’ to the 23-year-old captain of the Grenadier Guards just 
appointed one of his ADCs. Serene and smiling, his wife at 
his side, Louis Mountbatten rode up to Viceroy’s House in a 
gilded landau built half a century before for the royal progress 
through Delhi of his cousin, George V. At the instant his escort 
reached the palace’s grand staircase, the bagpipes of the Royal 
Scots Fusiliers skirled out a plaintive welcome to India s last 


Freedom at Midnight 

A faint, sad smile on his face, the outgoing Viceroy, Lord 
Wavell, waited at the head of the staircase. The very presence 
in New Delhi of those two men represented a break with 
tradition. Normally, an outgoing Viceroy sailed with due pomp 
from the Gateway of India while the next steamer bore his 
successor towards its spans, thus sparing India the embarrass- 
ment of having two Gods upon its soil at the same time. 
Mountbatten himself had insisted on this breach of custom 
so he could talk with the man to whom he formally bowed 
his head as he reached the top of the stairs. 

For a moment, in the intermittent glare of flashbulbs, the 
two men stood chatting. They were a poignantly contrasting 
pair: Mountbatten the glamorous war hero, exuding confi- 
dence and vitality; Wavell, the one-eyed old soldier, adored 
by his subordinates, brusquely sacked by the politicians, a man 
who had sadly noted in his diary not long before that, for the 
past half decade, his had been the unhappy fate ‘to conduct 
withdrawals and mitigate defeats’.* 

Wavell escorted Mountbatten through the heavy teak doors 
to the Viceroy’s study and his first direct confrontation with 
the awesome problems awaiting him. 

‘I am sorry indeed that you’ve been sent out here in my 
place,’ Wavell began. 

‘Well,’ said Mountbatten, somewhat taken aback, ‘that’s 
being candid. Why? Don’t you think I’m up to it?’ 

‘No, it’s not that,’ replied Wavell, ‘indeed, I’m very fond 
of you, but you’ve been given an impossible task. I’ve tried 
everything I know to solve this problem and I can see no light. 
There is just no way of dealing with it. Not only have we had 
absolutely no help from Whitehall, but we’ve now reached a 
complete impasse here.’ 

* The Attlee government had treated Wavell in particularly brutal fashion. 
He had been in London when Mountbatten was asked to replace him, but 
given no hint he was about to be sacked. He learned the news only hours 
before Attlee made it public. It was only on Mountbatten’s insistence that 
Attlee accorded him the elevation in his rank in the peerage which tradition- 
ally was offered a departing Viceroy. 

8 7 

A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

Patiently, Wavell reviewed his efforts to reach a solution. 
Then he stood up and opened his safe. Locked inside were the 
only two items he could bequeath his successor. The first 
sparkled on dark velvet folds inside a wooden box. It was the 
diamond-encrusted badge of the Grand Master of the Order 
of the Star of India, the emblem of Mountbatten’s new office, 
which, forty-eight hours hence, he would hang around his 
neck for the ceremonial which would officially install him as 

The second was a manilla file on which was written the 
words ‘Operation Madhouse’. It contained the only solution 
the able soldier had to propose to India’s dilemma. Sadly, he 
took it out of the safe and laid it on his desk. 

‘This is called “Madhouse”,’ he explained, ‘because it is a 
problem for a madhouse. Alas, I can see no other way 

It called for the British evacuation of India, province by 
province, women and children first, then civilians, then sol- 
diers, a move likely, in Gandhi’s words, to ‘leave India to 

‘It’s a terrible solution, but it’s the only one I can see,’ 
Wavell sighed. He picked up the file from his desk and offered 
it to his stunned successor. 

‘I am very, very, very sorry,’ he concluded, ‘but this is all I 
can bequeath you.’ 

As the new Viceroy concluded that sad introduction to his 
new functions, his wife, on the floor above Wavell’s study, was 
receiving a more piquant introduction to her new life. On 
reaching their quarters, Edwina Mountbatten had asked a ser- 
vant for a few scraps for the two sealyhams, Mizzen and Jib, 
which the Mountbattens had brought out from London. To 
her amazement, thirty minutes later, a pair of turbaned ser- 
vants solemnly marched into her bedroom, each bearing a 
silver tray set with a china plate on which were laid several 
slices of freshly roasted chicken breast. 

Eyes wide with wonder, Edwina contemplated that chicken. 
She had not seen food like it in the austerity of England for 


Freedom at Midnight 

weeks. She glanced at the sealyhams, barking at her feet, then 
back at the chicken. Her disciplined conscience would not 
allow her to give pets such nourishment. 

‘Give me that,’ she ordered. 

Firmly grasping the two plates of chicken, she marched into 
the bathroom and locked the door. There, the woman who 
would offer in the next months the hospitality of Viceroy’s 
House to 25,000 people, gleefully began to devour the chicken 
intended for her pets. 


The closing chapter in a great story was about to begin. In a 
few minutes on this morning of 24 March 1947, the last English- 
man to govern India would mount his gold and crimson vice- 
regal throne. Installed upon that throne, Louis Mountbatten 
would become the twentieth and final representative of a pres- 
tigious dynasty, his would be the last hands to clasp the sceptre 
that had passed from Hastings to Wellesley, Cornwallis and 

The site of his official consecration was the ceremonial Dur- 
bar Hall of a palace whose awesome dimensions were rivalled 
only by those of Versailles and the Peterhof of the Tsars. 
Ponderous, solemn, unabashedly imperial, Viceroy’s House, 
New Delhi, was the last such palace men would ever build for 
a single ruler. Indeed, only in India with its famished hordes 
desperate for work would a palace like Viceroy’s House have 
been built and maintained in the twentieth century. 

Its facades were covered with the red and white stone of 
Barauli, the building blocks of the Moghuls whose monuments 
it had succeeded. White, yellow, green, black marble quarried 
from the veins that had furnished the glistening mosaics of 
the Taj Mahal, embellished its floors and walls. So long were 
its corridors that in its basement servants rode from one end 
of the building to the other on bicycles. 

This morning, those servants were giving a last polish to 
the marble, the woodwork, the brass of its 37 salons and its 
340 rooms. Outside, in the formal Moghul gardens, 418 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

gardeners, more than Louis XIV had employed at Versailles, 
laboured to provide a perfect trim to its intricate maze of grass 
squares, rectangular flower beds and vaulted water-ways. 50 
of them were boys hired just to scare away the birds. In their 
stables, the 500 Punjabi horsemen of the Viceroy’s bodyguard 
adjusted their white and gold tunics as they prepared to mount 
their superb black horses. Throughout the house, gold and 
scarlet turbans flaring above their foreheads, their white tunics 
already embroidered with the new, Viceroy’s coat of arms, 
other servants scurried down the corridors on a final errand. 
For the last time, they all, gardeners, chamberlains, cooks, 
stewards, bearers, horsemen, all the retainers of that feudal 
fortress lost in the twentieth century, joined in preparing the 
enthronement of one of that select company of men for whom 
it had been built, a Viceroy of India. 

In one of the private chambers of the great house, a man 
contemplated the white full-dress admiral’s uniform his 
employer would wear to take possession of Viceroy’s House’s 
majestic precincts. No flaring turban graced his head. Charles 
Smith was not a product of the Punjab or Rajasthan, but of 
a country village in the south of England. 

With a meticulous regard for detail acquired over a quarter 
of a century of service in Mountbatten’s employ. Smith slipped 
the cornflower-blue silk sash of the world’s most exclusive 
company, the Order of the Garter, through the right epaulette 
and stretched it taut across the uniform’s breast. Then he 
looped the gold aiguillettes which marked the uniform’s owner 
as a personal ADC to King George VI through the right 

Finally, Smith took his employer’s medal bar and the four 
major stars he would wear this morning from their velvet 
boxes. With respect and care he gave a last polish to their 
gleaming gold and silver enamel forms: the Order of the Garter, 
the Order of the Star of India, the Order of the Indian Empire, 
the Grand Cross of the Victorian Order. 

Those rows of ribbons and crosses marking the milestones 
of Louis Mountbatten’s career were, in their special fashion. 


Freedom at Midnight 

the milestones along the course of Charles Smith’s life as well. 
Since he had joined Mountbatten’s service as third footman 
at the age of eighteen, Smith had walked in another man’s 
shadow. In the great country houses of England, in the naval 
stations of empire, in the capitals of Europe, his employer’s 
joys had been his, his triumphs, his victories, his sorrows, his 
griefs. During the war, he had joined the service and eventually 
followed Mountbatten to South-east Asia. There, from a spec- 
tator’s seat in the City Hall of Singapore, Charles Smith had 
watched with tears of pride filling his eyes as Mountbatten, in 
another uniform he’d prepared, had effaced the worst humili- 
ation Britain had ever endured by taking the surrender of 
almost three-quarters of a million Japanese soldiers, sailors 
and airmen. 

Smith stepped back to contemplate his work. No one in the 
world was more demanding when it came to dressing a uni- 
form than Mountbatten, and this was not a morning to make 
a mistake. Smith unbuttoned the jacket and sash, and gingerly 
lifted it from the dress dummy on which it rested. He eased 
it over his own shoulders and turned to a mirror for a final 
check. There, for a brief and poignant moment before that 
mirror, he was out of the shadows. For just a second, Charles 
Smith, too, could dream he was the Viceroy of India. 

Slipping his tunic, heavy with its load of orders and decor- 
ations, over his torso, Louis Mountbatten could not help think- 
ing of those magic weeks a quarter of a century earlier when 
he’d discovered India by the side of his cousin, the Prince of 
Wales. Both of them had been dazzled by the majestic air 
surrounding the Viceroy of India as he presided over his 
empire. So much pomp, so much luxury, such homage seemed 
to accompany his slightest gesture that the Prince of Wales 
himself had remarked, ‘I never understood how a king should 
live until I saw the Viceroy of India.’ 

Mountbatten remembered his own youthful amazement at 
the panoply of imperial power that focused on the person of 
one Englishman the allegiance of the world’s densest masses. 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

He recalled his awe at the manner in which the viceregal 
establishment had blended the glitter of a European court and 
the faintly decadent aura of the feasts of the Orient. Now, 
against his will, that viceregal throne with all its pomp and 
splendour was about to be his. His Viceroyalty, alas, would 
bear little resemblance to that gay round of ceremonies and 
hunting that had stirred his youthful dreamings. His youthful 
ambitions were to be fulfilled, but in the real world, not the 
fairy-tale world of 1921. 

A knock on the door interrupted his meditation. He turned.. 
The rigorously unemotional Mountbatten started at the sight 
framed in the doorway of his bedroom. It was his wife, a 
diamond tiara glittering in her brown hair, her white silk gown 
clinging to the curves of a figure as slim and supple as it had 
been that day she had walked out of St Margaret’s, West- 
minster, on his arm. 

Like her husband, Edwina Mountbatten seemed to have been 
sought out for the blessings of a capricious Providence. She 
had beauty. She possessed a fine intellect, more penetrating 
some thought than her husband’s. She had inherited great 
wealth from her maternal grandfather, Sir Ernest Cassel, and 
social position from her father’s family whose forebears 
included England’s great nineteenth-century Prime Minister, 
Lord Palmerston, and the famous philanthropic politician, the 
seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. There had been clouds in her 
paradise. An intensely unhappy childhood after her mother’s 
early death had left her with an introverted nature. She was 
easily hurt and kept the pain of those hurts locked inside her 
where they corroded the linings of her being. Small things 
pained her. Unlike her ebullient husband who never hesitated 
to criticize anything that displeased him and accepted criticism 
with lofty aplomb, Edwina Mountbatten took offence easily. 
‘You could tell Lord Mountbatten what you wanted, any way 
you wanted to,’ recalled one of their senior aides. With Lady 
Louis, you had to proceed with the utmost care. 

She had locked her shyness, her introverted nature into the 


Freedom at Midnight 

strait-jacket of an unyielding will. By that will, she made herself 
into something which nature had not intended her to be: an 
outgoing woman, seemingly extroverted. But the price was 
always there to be paid. She had been speaking in public for 
a decade, sometimes two or three times a week, yet, before 
making a major speech, her hands shook almost uncon- 
trollably. Her health was as fragile as a porcelain vase. She 
suffered almost daily from the cruel thrusts of a migraine 
headache, but no one outside her family knew, because physi- 
cal weakness was not something she was prepared to indulge. 
Unlike her self-confident husband who could boast he ‘never, 
never worried’, Edwina worried constantly. While he slept 
immediately and soundly, sleep’s solace came to her only as 
a pill-induced torpor. 

Two distinctly separate periods had marked the Mount- 
battens’ quarter of a century together. During the first fourteen 
years of their marriage, while Louis Mountbatten was slowly 
moving up the naval ladder, he had insisted they exclude her 
wealth and their social position from the naval environment 
in which they spent much of their time. Away from the naval 
stations, however, in London, Paris and on the Riviera, Edwina 
became, her daughter recalled, ‘the perfect social butterfly’, a 
zealous party-giver and party-goer, blazing through the twen- 
ties with the intensity of a Fitzgerald heroine. When she was 
not dancing she sought the stimulation of adventure: 
chartering a copra schooner in the South Pacific, flying on the 
first flight from Sydney to London, being the first European 
woman up the Burma Road. 

That carefree, innocent period in their life had ended with 
Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. By Munich, the transforma- 
tion was complete. From then on, her life was dominated by 
the conviction that it was immoral not to be fully occupied 
by the pursuit of some social or political good. The giddy 
heiress became a social reformer, the social butterfly a con- 
cerned activist with a liberal outlook little appreciated by her 

During the war, she led the St John Ambulance Brigade with 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

its 60,000 members. When Japan surrendered, her husband 
urgently requested her to tour the Japanese prisoner-of-war 
camps so as to organize the care and evacuation of their most 
desperate inmates. Before the first soldiers of his command 
had set foot on the Malayan Peninsula, Edwina Mountbatten, 
armed only with a letter from her husband, her only escort a 
secretary, three of her husband’s staff officers and an Indian 
ADC, plunged into territory still under Japanese control. She 
continued all the way to Balikpan, Manila and Hong Kong, 
fearlessly berating the Japanese, forcing them to provide food 
and medicine for their prisoners until Allied help could arrive. 
Thousands of starving, wretchedly ill men were saved by her 

Like her husband, she ended the war with a chestful of 
well-earned decorations. Now she was to play at his side a 
vital role in New Delhi. She would be his first and most trusted 
confidante, his discreet and private emissary in moments of 
crisis, his most effective ambassador to the Indian leaders with 
whom he would have to deal. 

Like her husband, she, too, would leave behind in India the 
imprint of her style and character. A woman of extraordinary 
versatility, Edwina Mountbatten would be able in an evening 
to preside over a formal banquet for 100 in a silk evening 
dress, a diamond tiara glittering in her hair, and, the following 
morning, in a simple uniform, walk through mud up to her 
ankles to cradle in her lap the head of a child dying of cholera 
in the filth of an Indian hovel. She would display in those 
moments a human compassion some found lacking in her 
husband. Hers was not the condescending gesture of a great 
lady perfunctorily acknowledging the misery of the poor, but 
a heartfelt sorrow for India’s sufferings. The Indians would 
see the sincerity of Edwina Mountbatten’s feelings and respond 
in turn to her as they had never responded before to an 

As his wife advanced across the room towards him, Mount- 
batten could not help thinking what a strange resolution this 


Freedom at Midnight 

day was to their destinies. Less than a mile separated the 
bedroom in which they stood contemplating each other and 
the spot on which he had asked Edwina Ashley to marry hifti 
a quarter of a century before. It was 14 February 1922, and 
they had been sitting out the fifth dance of a Viceroy’s ball in 
honour of the Prince of Wales. Their hostess that evening, the 
Vicereine, Lady Reading, had not been overjoyed at the news. 
The young Mountbatten, she had written to his new fiancee’s 
aunt, did not have much of a career before him. 

Mountbatten remembered her words now. Unable to sup- 
press a smile, he took his wife’s arm and set out to install her 
on Lady Reading’s gold and crimson throne. 

India was always a land of ceremonial splendour and on that 
March morning, when Louis Mountbatten was to be made 
Viceroy, the blend of Victorian pomp and Moghul munificence 
that had stamped the rites of the Raj was still intact. Spread 
before the broad staircase leading to the Durbar Hall, the 
heart of Viceroy’s House, were honour guards from the Indian 
Army, Navy and Air Force. Sabres glittering in the morning 
sunlight, Mountbatten’s bodyguard, in scarlet and gold tunics, 
white breeches and glistening black leather jackboots lined his 
march to the hall. 

Inside, under its white marble dome, the elite of India 
waited: high court judges, their black robes and curling wigs 
as British as the law they administered; the Romans of the Raj, 
senior officers of the Indian Civil Service, the pale purity of 
their Anglo-Saxon profiles leavened by a smattering of more 
sombre Indian faces; a delegation of maharajas gleaming like 
gilded peacocks in their satin and jewels; and, above all, Jawa- 
harlal Nehru and his colleagues in Gandhi’s Congress, their 
rough homespun cotton khadi harbingers of the onrushing 

When the first members of Mountbatten’s cortege stepped 
into the hall, four trumpeters concealed in niches around the 
base of the dome began a muted fanfare, their notes rising as 
the procession moved forward. The lights of the great hall, 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

dimmed at first, rose in rhythm to the trumpets’ gathering 
crescendo. At the instant India’s new Viceroy and Vicereine 
passed through the great doorway, they blazed to an incandes- 
cent glare, and the trumpets sent a triumphant swirl of sound 
reverberating around the vaulted dome. Solemn and unsmil- 
ing, the Mountbattens slow-marched down the carpeted aisles 

towards their waiting thrones. 

A kind of apprehension, a rising tension not unlike that he 
had once known on the bridge of the Kelly in the uncertain 
moments before battle, crowded in on Mountbatten. Each 
gesture measured to the grandeur of the moment, he and his 
wife moved under the crimson velvet canopy spread over their 
gilded thrones and turned to face the assembly. The Chief 
Justice stepped forward and, his right hand raised, Mount- 
batten solemnly pronounced the oath that made him India s 
last Viceroy. 

As he pronounced its concluding words, the rumble ot the 
cannon of the Royal Horse Artillery outside rolled through 
the hall. At that same instant all across the sub-continent, 
other cannons took up the ponderous 3 t-g un salute. At Landi 
Kotal at the head of the Khybef Pass; Fort William in Calcutta 
where Clive had set Britain on the road to her Indian Empire; 
the Lucknow Residence where- the Union Jack was never struck 
in honour of the men and women who had defended it in the 
Mutiny of 1857; Cape Comorin, past whose monazite sands 
the galleons of Queen Elizabeth I had sailed; Fort St George 
in Madras where the East India Company had its first land 
grant inscribed on a plate of gold; in Poona, Peshawar and 
Simla; everywhere there was a military garrison in India, troops 
on parade presented arms as the first gun exploded in Delhi. 
Frontier Force Rifles, the Guides Cavalry, Hodson’s and Skin- 
ner’s Horse, Sikhs and Dogras, Jats and Pathans, Gurkhas and 
Madrassis poised while the cannon thundered out their last 
tattoo for the British Raj. 

As the sound of the last report faded through the dome of 
Durbar Hall, the new Viceroy stepped to the microphone. The 
situation he faced was so serious that, against the advice of 


Freedom at Midnight 

his staff, Mountbatten had decided to break with tradition by 
addressing the gathering before him. 

‘I am under no illusion about the difficulty of my task,’ he 
said. ‘I shall need the greatest goodwill of the greatest possible 
number, and I am asking India today for that goodwill.’ 

As he finished the guards threw open the massive Assam 
teak doors of the Hall. Before Mountbatten was the breath- 
taking vista of Kingsway and its glistening pools, plunging 
down the heart of New Delhi. Overhead the trumpets sent out 
another strident call. Suddenly, walking back down the aisle, 
Mountbatten felt his apprehension slip away. That brief cere- 
mony, he realized, had turned him into one of the most power- 
ful men on earth. 

Forty-five minutes later, back in civilian clothes, Mount- 
batten settled at his desk. As he did, his jamadhar chaprassi, 
his office footman, walked in in his gold turban bearing a 
green leather despatch box which he ceremoniously set in front 
of the Viceroy. Mountbatten opened it and pulled out the 
document inside. It was a stark confirmation of the power 
which he had just inherited, the final appeal for mercy of a 
man condemned to death. Fascinated and horrified, Mount- 
batten read his way through each detail. The case involved a 
man who had savagely beaten his wife to death in front of a 
crowd of witnesses. It had been so thoroughly combed, passed 
through so many appeals, that there were no extenuating cir- 
cumstances to be found. Mountbatten hesitated for a long 
minute. Then, sadly, he took a pen and performed the first 
official act of his Viceroyalty. 

‘There are no grounds for the exercise of the Royal preroga- 
tive of mercy,’ he noted on the cover. 

Before setting out to impose his ideas on India’s political 
leaders, Louis Mountbatten sensed he had first to impose his 
own personality on India. India’s last Viceroy might, as he 
had glumly predicted at Northolt Airport, come home with a 
bullet in his back, but he would be a Viceroy unlike any other 
India had seen. Mountbatten firmly believed, ‘it was impossible 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

to be Viceroy without putting up a great, brilliant show.’ He 
had been sent to New Delhi to get the British out of India, 
but he was determined they would go in a shimmer of scarlet 
and gold, all the old glories of the Raj honed to the highest 
pitch one last time. 

He ordered all the ceremonial trappings suppressed during 
the war to be restored: ADCs in dazzling full-dress, guard- 
mounting ceremonies, bands playing, sabres flashing, ‘the lot’. 
He loved every splendid moment of it, but a far shrewder 
concern than his own delight in pageantry underlay it. 

The pomp and panoply were designed to give him a viceregal 
aura of glamour and power, to provide him a framework which 
would give his actions an added dimension. He intended to 
replace the ‘Operation Madhouse’ of his predecessor by an 
‘Operation Seduction’ of his own, a mini-revolution in style 
directed as much towards India’s masses as the leaders with 
whom he would have to negotiate. It would be a shrewd blend 
of contrasting values, of patrician pomp and common touch, 
of the old spectacles of the dying Raj and new initiatives pre- 
figuring the India of tomorrow. 

Strangely, Mountbatten began his revolution with the stroke 
of a paint brush. To the horror of his aides, he ordered the 
gloomy wooden panels of the viceregal study in which so many 
negotiations had failed, to be covered with a light, cheerful 
coat of paint more apt to relax the Indian leaders with whom 
he’d be dealing. He shook Viceroy’s House out of the leisurely 
routine it had developed, turning it into a humming, quasi- 
military headquarters. He instituted staff meetings, soon 
known as ‘morning prayers’, as the first official activity of each 

Mountbatten astonished his new ICS subordinates with the 
agility of his mind, his capacity to get at the root of a problem 
and, above all, his almost obsessive capacity for work. He put 
an end to the parade of chaprassis who traditionally bore the 
Viceroy his papers for his private contemplation in green 
leather despatch boxes. He did not propose to waste his time 
locking and unlocking boxes and penning handwritten notes 


Freedom at Midnight 

on the margins of papers in the solemn isolation of his study. 
He preferred taut, verbal briefings. 

‘When you wrote “may I speak?” on a paper he was to 
read/ one of his staff recalled, ‘you could be sure you’d speak, 
and you’d better be ready to say what was on your mind at 
any time, because the call could come at two o’clock in the 

It was above all the public image Mountbatten was trying 
to create for himself and his office that represented a radical 
change. For over a century, the Viceroy of India, locked in the 
ceremonial splendours of his office, had rivalled the Dalai 
Lama as the most remote God in Asia’s pantheon. Two unsuc- 
cessful assassination attempts had left him enrobed in a cocoon 
of security, isolating him from all contact with the masses he 
ruled. Whenever the Viceroy’s white and gold train moved 
across the vast spaces of India, guards were posted every 100 
yards along its route 24 hours in advance of its arrival. Hun- 
dreds of bodyguards, police and security men followed each 
of his moves. If he played golf, the fairways were cleared and 
police posted along them behind almost every tree. If he went 
riding, a squadron of the Viceroy’s bodyguard and security 
police jogged along after him. 

Mountbatten was determined to shatter that screen. First, 
he announced he and his wife or daughter would take their 
morning rides unescorted. His words sent a wave of horror 
through the house, and it took him some time to get his way. 
But he did, and suddenly the Indian villagers along the route 
of their morning rides began to witness a spectacle so unbeliev- 
able as to seem a mirage: the Viceroy and Vicereine of India 
trotting past them, waving graciously, alone and unprotected. 

Then, he and his wife made an even more revolutionary 
gesture. He did something no Viceroy had deigned to do in 
two hundred years: visit the home of an Indian who was not 
one of a handful of privileged princes. To the astonishment 
of all India, the viceregal couple walked into a garden party 
at the simple New Delhi residence of Jawaharlal Nehru. While 
Nehru’s aides looked on dumb with disbelief, Mountbatten 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

took Nehru by the elbow and strolled off among the guests, 
casually chatting and shaking hands. ^ 

The gesture had a stunning impact. ‘Thank God,’ Nehru 
told his sister that evening, ‘we’ve finally got a human being 
for a Viceroy and not a stuffed shirt.’ 

Anxious to demonstrate that a new esteem for the Indian 
people now reigned in Viceroy’s House, Mountbatten accorded 
the Indian military, two million of whom had served under 
him in South-East Asia, a long overdue honour. He had three 
Indian officers attached to his staff as ADCs. Next, he ordered 
the doors of Viceroy’s House to be opened to Indians, only a 
handful of whom had been invited into its precincts before 
his arrival. He instructed his staff that there were to be no 
dinner parties in the Viceroy’s House without Indian guests. 
Not just a few token guests; henceforth, he ordered, at least 
half the faces around his table were to be Indian. 

His wife brought an even more dramatic revolution to the 
viceregal dining table. Out of respect for the culinary traditions 
of her Indian guests, she ordered the house’s kitchens to start 
preparing dishes which, in a century of imperial hospitality, 
had never been offered in Viceroy’s House, Indian vegetarian 
food. Not only that, she ordered the food to be served on flat 
Indian trays and servants with the traditional wash basins, jugs 
and towels to stand behind her guests so they could, if they 
chose, eat with their fingers at the Viceroy’s table, then wash 
their throats with a ritual gargle. 

That barrage of gestures large and small, the evident and 
genuine affection the Mountbattens displayed for the country 
in which their own love affair had had its beginnings, the 
knowledge that the new Viceroy was a deliverer and not a 
conqueror, the respect of the men who’d served under him in 
Asia; all combined to produce a remarkable aura about the 

couple. , 

Not long after their arrival the New York Times noted, no 
Viceroy in history has so completely won the confidence, 
respect and liking of the Indian people.’ Indeed, within a few 
weeks, the success of ‘Operation Seduction’ would be so 

100 Freedom at Midnight 

remarkable that Nehru himself would tell the new Viceroy 
only half jokingly that he was becoming a difficult man to 
negotiate with, because he was ‘drawing larger crowds than 
anybody in India*. 

The words were so terrifying that Louis Mountbatten at first 
did not believe them. They made even the dramatic sketch of 
the Indian scene Clement Attlee had painted him on New 
Year’s Day seem like a description of some tranquil country- 
side. Yet the man uttering them in the privacy of his study 
had a reputation for brilliance and an understanding of India 
unsurpassed in the viceregal establishment. A triple blue and 
a first at Oxford, George Abell had been the most intimate 
collaborator of Mountbatten’s predecessor. 

India, he told Mountbatten with stark simplicity, was head- 
ing for a civil war. Only by finding the rapidest of resolutions 
to her problems was he going to save her. The great adminis- 
trative machine governing India was collapsing. The shortage 
of British officers caused by the decision to stop recruiting 
during the war and the rising antagonism between its Hindu 
and Moslem members, meant that the rule of that vaunted 
institution, the Indian Civil Service, could not survive the 
year. The time for discussion and debate was past. Speed, not 
deliberation, was needed to avoid a catastrophe. 

Coming from a man of Abell’s stature, those words gave 
the new Viceroy a dismal shock. Yet they were only the first 
in a stream of reports which engulfed him during his first 
fortnight in India. He received an equally grim analysis from 
the man he’d picked to come with him as his Chief of Staff, 
General Lord Ismay, Winston Churchill’s Chief of Staff from 
1940 to 1945. A veteran of the sub-continent as officer in the 
Indian Army and military secretary to an earlier Viceroy, Ismay 
concluded, India was a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammu- 
nition in her hold.’ The question, he told Mountbatten, was: 
could they get the fire out before it reached the ammunition? 

The first report Mountbatten received from the British Gov- 
ernor of the Punjab warned him ‘there is a civil war atmosphere 


A Last Tattoo for the Dying Raj 

throughout the province’. One insignificant paragraph of that 
report offered a startling illustration of the accuracy of the 
Governor’s words. It mentioned a recent tragedy in a rural 
district near Rawalpindi. A Moslem’s water buffalo had wan- 
dered on to the property of his Sikh neighbour. When its 
owner sought to reclaim it, a fight, then a riot, erupted. Two 
hours later, a hundred human beings lay in the surrounding 
fields, hacked to death with scythes and knives because of the 
vagrant humours of a water buffalo. 

Five days after the new Viceroy’s arrival incidents between 
Hindus and Moslems took 99 lives in Calcutta. Two days later, 
a similar conflict broke out in Bombay leaving 41 mutilated 
bodies on its pavements. 

Confronted by these outbursts of violence, Mountbatten 
called India’s senior police officer to his study and asked if the 
police were capable of maintaining law and order in India. 

‘No, Your Excellency,’ was the reply, ‘we cannot.’ Shaken, 
Mountbatten put the same question to Field-Marshal Sir 
Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. 
He got the same answer. 

Mountbatten quickly discovered that the government with 
which he was supposed to govern India, a coalition of the 
Congress Party and the Moslem League put together with 
enormous effort by his predecessor, was in fact an assembly 
of enemies so bitterly divided that its members barely spoke 
to one another. It was clearly going to fall apart, and when it 
did, Mountbatten would have to assume the appalling res- 
ponsibility of exercising direct rule himself with the adminis- 
trative machine required for the task collapsing underneath 

Confronted by that grim prospect, assailed on every side by 
reports of violence, by the warnings of his most seasoned 
advisers, Mountbatten reached what was perhaps the most 
important decision he would make in his first ten days in India. 
It was to condition every other decision of his Viceroyalty. The 
date of June 1948 established in London for the Transfer of 
Power, the date he himself had urged on Attlee, had been 


Freedom at Midnight 

wildly optimistic. Whatever solution he was to reach for India’s 
future, he was going to have to reach it in weeks, not months. 

‘The scene here,’ he wrote in his first report to the Attlee 
government on 2 April 1947, ‘is one of unrelieved gloom . . . 
I can see little ground on which to build any agreed solution 
for the future of India.’ 

After describing the country’s unsettled state, the young 
admiral issued an anguished warning to the man who had sent 
him to India. ‘The only conclusion I have been able to come 
to,’ he wrote, ‘is that unless I act quickly, I will find the 
beginnings of a civil war on my hands.’ 


An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 


New Delhi , April 1947 

There was no one else in the room. Not even a secretary 
unobtrusively taking notes disturbed the two men. Convinced 
of the urgency of the situation facing him, Mountbatten had 
decided to employ a revolutionary tactic for his negotiations 
with India's leaders. For the first time in its modern history, 
India’s destiny was not being decided around a conference 
table, but in the intimacy of private conversation. The tete-a- 
tete just beginning in the Viceroy’s freshly painted study was 
the first in a series. Those conversations would determine 
whether India would be spared the horror of civil war foreseen 
in Louis Mountbatten’s first report to London. Five men would 
participate in them, Louis Mountbatten and four Indian 

Those four Indians had spent the better part of their lives 
agitating against the British and arguing with each other. All 
of them were past middle age. All of then! were lawyers who 
had first honed their forensic skills in London’s Inns of Court. 
For each of them, their coming conversations with India’s new 
Viceroy would be the greatest argument of their lifetimes, the 
debate for which each of them had, in a sens,e, been preparing 
for a quarter of a century. 

In Mountbatten’s mind, there was no question what the 
outcome of that debate should be. Like many Englishmen, he 
looked on India’s unity as the greatest single legacy Britain 
could leave behind. He had a deep, almost evangelical desire 
to maintain it. To respond to the Moslem appeal to divide the 
country was, he believed, to sow the seeds of tragedy. 

Every effort to get India’s leaders to agree to a solution to 

104 Freedom at Midnight 

their country’s problems in the quasi-public glare of a formal 
meeting had ended in a hopeless deadlock. But here, in the 
privacy of his study, reasoning with them one by one, Mount- 
batten hoped he might bring them to agreement in the brief 
time at his disposal. Supremely confident of his own powers 
of persuasion, confident, above all, of the compelling logic of 
his case, he was going to try to achieve in weeks what his 
predecessors had been unable to achieve in years; to get India’s 
leaders to agree on some form of unity. 

With his white Congress cap fixed on his balding head, a 
fresh rose twisted through the third buttonhole of his waist- 
coat, the man before him was one of the familiar figures on 
India’s political landscape. In his own slightly feline way, Jawa- 
harlal Nehru was as impressively striking a figure as India’s 
new Viceroy. The sensual features of a face whose expression 
could change in an instant from angelic softness to daemonic 
wrath were often tinged with a glimmer of sadness. While 
Mountbatten’s features were almost always composed, Nehru’s 
rarely were. His moods and humours slipped across his face 
like shadows passing across the waters of a lake. 

He was the only one of the Indian leaders that Mountbatten 
already knew. The two men had met after the war when Nehru 
was on a visit to Singapore, where Mountbatten had his SEAC 
headquarters. Ignoring his advisers, who’d counselled him to 
have nothing to do with a rebel whose shoes still bore the dust 
of a British prison yard, Mountbatten had met the Indian 
leader/ The two immediately sympathized with each other. 
Nehru rediscovered in the company of Mountbatten and his 
wife an England he had not known for forty years, the England 
his years in British jail had almost eradicated from his memory, 
that open and welcoming England he had known as a school- 
boy. The Mountbattens delighted in Nehru’s charm, his cul- 

* On 22 January 1944, while visiting his 33rd Army Corps in Ahmednaggar, 
Mountbatten had learned Nehru was detained in the city. Noting he had 
over a million Indian soldiers under his command, he requested permission 
to visit the Indian leader. His request was denied. 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 105 

ture, his quick humour. To the horror of his staff, Mountbatten 
had even spontaneously decided to ride through Singapore’s 
streets in his open car with Nehru at his side. His action, his 
advisers had warned, would only dignify an anti-British rebel. 

‘Dignify him?’ Mountbatten had retorted. ‘It’s he who 
will dignify me. One day this man will be Prime Minister of 

Now, his prophecy had been realized. It was to his position 
as Prime Minister of India’s interim government that Nehru 
owed the honour of being the first of India’s four leaders to 
enter Mountbatten’^ study. 

For Jawaharlal Nehru, the conversation beginning in the Vice- 
roy’s study was just the latest episode in a continuing dialogue 
with his country’s colonizers that had occupied most of his 
life. Nehru had been a pampered guest in the best country 
houses in England. He had dined off the gold service of Buck- 
ingham Palace and the till plates of a British prison. His inter- 
locutors had included Cambridge dons, Prime Ministers, 
Viceroys, the King Emperor - and jail-keepers. 

Born into an eastern aristocracy as old and as proud as 
any produced by India’s British rulers, that of the Kashmiri 
Brahmins, Nehru had been sent to England at sixteen to finish 
his education. He spent seven gloriously happy years there, 
learning Latin verbs and cricket at Harrow, studying science, 
Nietzsche and Chaucer at Cambridge, admiring the reasoning 
of Blackstone at the Inns of Court. With his gentle charm, 
elegant manners, rapidly expanding culture, he had enjoyed 
an extraordinary social success wherever he went. He moved 
easily through the drawing-rooms of English society absorbing 
with the sponge of his still malleable personality the values 
and mannerisms he found there. So complete was the transfor- 
mation wreaked by those seven years in England that, on 
his return to Allahabad, his family and friends found him 
completely de-Indianized. 

The young Nehru soon discovered, however, the limits of 
his de-Indianization. He was blackballed when he applied for 

106 Freedom at Midnight 

membership in the local British Club. He might have been a 
product of Harrow and Cambridge, but to the all white, all 
British - and devotedly middle-class - membership of the 
Club, he was still a black Indian. 

The bitterness caused by that rejection haunted Nehru for 
years and hastened him towards the cause which became his 
life’s work, the struggle for Indian independence. He joined 
the Congress Party, and his agitation on its behalf soon quali- 
fied him for admission to the finest political training school 
in the British Empire, British jails, where Nehru spent nine 
years of his life. In the solitude of his cell, in prison courtyards 
with his fellow Congress leaders, he had shaped his vision of 
the India of tomorrow. An idealist immersed in the doctrines 
of social revolution, Nehru dreamed of reconciling on the soil 
of India his two political passions: the parliamentary demo- 
cracy of England and the economic socialism of Karl Marx. 
He dreamed of an India freed alike of the shackles of poverty 
and of superstition, unburdened of capitalism, an India in 
which the smoke stacks of factories reached out from her cities, 
an India enjoying the plenitude of that Industrial Revolution 
to which her colonizers had denied her access. 

No one might have seemed a more unlikely candidate to 
lead India towards that vision than Jawaharlal Nehru. Under 
the cotton khadi he wore in deference to the dictates of Con- 
gress, he remained the quintessential English gentleman. In a 
land of mystics, he was a cool rationalist. The mind that had 
exulted in the discovery of science at Cambridge never ceased 
to be appalled by his fellow Indians who refused to stir from 
their homes on days proclaimed inauspicious by their favourite 
astrologers. He was a publicly declared agnostic in the most 
intensely spiritual area in the world, and he never ceased to 
proclaim the horror the word ‘religion’ inspired in him. Nehru 
despised India’s priests, her sadhus , her chanting monks and 
pious sheikhs. They had only served, he felt, to impede her 
progress, deepen her divisions and e^se the task of her foreign 

And yet, the India of those sadhus and the superstition- 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 107 

haunted masses had accepted Nehru. For thirty years he had 
travelled across India haranguing the multitudes. Clinging to 
the roofs and sides of tramways to escape the slums of India’s 
cities, on foot and by bullock cart in the countrysides, his 
countrymen had come by the hundreds of thousands to see 
and hear him. Many in those crowds could not hear his words 
nor understand them when they did. For them, it had been 
enough however just to see, over the ocean of heads around 
them, his frail and gesticulating silhouette. They had taken 
darshan y a kind of spiritual communion received from being 
in the presence of a great man and that had sufficed. 

He was a superb orator and writer, a man who treasured 
words as a courtesan jewels. Anointed early by Gandhi, he had 
advanced steadily through the ranks of Congress eventually to 
preside over it three times. The Mahatma had made it clear 
that it was on his shoulders that he wished his mantle to fall. 

For Nehru, Gandhi was a genius. Nehru’s cool, pragmatic 
mind had rejected almost all of Gandhi’s great moves: civil 
disobedience, the Salt March, Quit India. But his heart had 
told him to follow the Mahatma and his heart, he would later 
admit, had been right. 

Gandhi had been, in a sense, Nehru’s guru. It was he who 
had re-Indianized Nehru, sending him into the villages to find 
the real face of his homeland, to let the fingers of his soul 
touch India’s sufferings. Whenever the two men were in the 
same place, Nehru would spend at least half an hour sitting 
at ‘Bapuji’s’ feet, sometimes talking, sometimes listening, 
sometimes just looking and thinking. Those were, for Nehru, 
moments of intense spiritual satisfaction, perhaps the closest 
brush his atheist’s heart would ever have with religion. 

Yet so much separated them: Nehru, the religion-hating 
atheist; Gandhi, to whom an unshakeable belief in God was 
the very essence of being: Nehru, whose hot temper had made 
him a notably imperfect soldier of non-violence, a man who 
adored literature and painting, science and technology, the 
very things Gandhi ignored or detested as being responsible 
for much of mankind’s misery. 

io8 Freedom at Midnight 

Between them a fascinating father-son relation grew up, 
animated by all the tensions, affections and repressed guilt 
such a relationship implied. All his life, Nehru had had an 
instinctive need for a dominant personality near him, some 
steadying influence to whom he could turn in the crises engen- 
dered by his volatile nature. His father, a bluff, jovial barrister 
with a penchant for good Scotch and Bordeaux, had first filled 
that role. Since his death, it had been Gandhi. 

Nehru’s devotion to Gandhi remained total, but a subtle 
change was overtaking their relationship. A phase in Nehru’s 
life was drawing to a close. The son was ready to leave his 
father’s house for the new world he saw beyond its gates. In 
that new world, he would need a new guru , a guru more 
sensitive to the complex problems that would assail him there. 
Although he was perhaps unaware of it as he sat in the Vice- 
roy’s study that March afternoon, a vacuum had opened in 
the psyche of Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Much had changed in the world and in their own lives since 
Nehru and Mountbatten had met for the first time, but the 
undercurrent of mutual sympathy which had warmed their 
earlier encounter soon made itself felt in the Viceroy’s study. 
It was not surprising that it should. Although Mountbatten, 
of course, did not know it, Nehru was partially responsible 
for his being there. 

Besides, there was a great deal to bind the scion of a 3000- 
year-old line of Kashmiri Brahmins and the man who claimed 
descent from the oldest ruling family in Protestantism. They 
both loved to talk and expanded in each other’s company. 
Nehru, the abstract thinker, admired Mountbatten’s practical 
dynamism, the capacity for decisive action that wartime com- 
mand had given him. Mountbatten was stimulated by Nehru’s 
culture, the subtlety of his thought. He quickly understood that 
the only Indian politician who would share and understand his 
desire to maintain a link between Britain and a new India was 
Jawaharlal Nehru. 

With his usual candour, the Admiral told him that he had 


An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 

been given an appalling responsibility and he intended to 
approach the Indian problem in a mood of stark realism. As 
they talked, the two men rapidly agreed on two major points: 
a quick decision was essential to avoid a bloodbath; the division 
of India would be a tragedy. 

Then Nehru turned to the actions of the next Indian leader 
who would enter Mountbatten’s study, the penitent marching 
his lonely path through Noakhali and Bihar. The man to whom 
he’d been so long devoted was, Nehru said, 'going around 
with ointment trying to heal one sore spot after another on the 
body of India instead of diagnosing the cause of the eruption of 
the sores and participating in the treatment of the body as a 

In offering a glimpse into the growing gulf separating the 
Liberator of India and his closest companions, Nehru’s words 
provided Mountbatten with a vital insight into the form his 
actions in Delhi should take. If he could not persuade India’s 
leaders to keep their country united, he was going to hate -to 
persuade them to divide it. Gandhi s unremitting hostility to 
partition could place an insurmountable barrier in his path. 
His only hope in that event would be to persuade the leaders 
of Congress to break with their leader and agree to divide 
India as the only solution to their country’s dilemma. Nehru 
would be the key if that happened. He was the one ally Mount- 
batten had to have. Only he, Mountbatten thought, might have 
the authority to stand out against the Mahatma. 

Now his words had revealed the discord between Gandhi 
and his party chiefs. Mountbatten might be forced to widen 
and exploit that gap. He spared no effort to win Nehru’s 
support. On none of India’s leaders would Operation 
Seduction have more impact than the realistic Kashmiri Brah- 
min. A friendship that would prove decisive in the months to 
come was beginning that afternoon. 

Taking Nehru to the door, Mountbatten told him: ‘Mr 
Nehru, I want you to regard me not as the last British Viceroy 
winding up the Raj, but as the first to lead the way to a new 
India.’ Nehru turned and looked at the man he had wanted 


Freedom at Midnight 

to see on the viceregal throne. ‘Ah,’ he said, a faint smile 
creasing his face, now, I know what they mean when they 
speak of your charm as being so dangerous.’ 


Once again, Churchill s half-naked fakir was sitting in the 
viceregal study, there ‘to negotiate and parley on equal terms 
with the representative of the King Emperor’. 

He s rather like a little bird,’ Louis Mountbatten thought, 
as he contemplated that famous figure at his side, ‘a kind of 
sweet, sad sparrow perched on my armchair.’* 

They made an odd couple: the royal sailor who loved to 
dress up in uniformed splendour and the elderly Indian who 
refused to cover his nakedness with anything more than a 
sheet of rough cotton. Mountbatten, handsome, the vitality 
surging from his muscled athlete’s body; Gandhi, whose little 
frame almost- disappeared into his armchair; the advocate of 
non-violence and the professional warrior; the aristocrat and 
the man who had chosen to live his life immersed in the 
poverty of the most destitute masses on the globe; Mount- 
batten, the wartime master of the technology of communi- 
cations, for ever searching for some new electronic gadget to 
enhance the complex signal net that linked him to the millions 
of his command; Gandhi, the fragile Messiah who mistrusted 
all that paraphernalia and yet still communicated with his 
public as few figures in this century had been able to. 

All of those elements, almost everything in their back- 
grounds, seemed to destine the two men to disagreement. And 
yet, in the months ahead, Gandhi the pacifist would, according 
to one of his intimates, find in the soul of the professional 

* As a young man accompanying his cousin the Prince of Wales on his royal 
tour of India in 1921, Mountbatten had tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange a 
meeting between Gandhi and the heir to the imperial crown. He had no 
difficulty convincing his adventurous cousin; Gandhi, however, had organized 
a boycott of the royal visit and the Viceroy, Lord Reading, had no intention 
of allowing a meeting between the two to take place. Nor would he allow 
Mountbatten to see him alone. 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 111 

warrior ‘the echo of certain of the moral values that stirred in 
his own soul’. For his part, Mountbatten would become so 
attached to Gandhi that on his death he would predict that 
‘Mahatma Gandhi will go down in history on a par with Christ 
and Buddha’. 

So important had Mountbatten considered this first meeting 
with Gandhi that he had written to the Mahatma inviting him 
to Delhi even before the ceremony enthroning him as Viceroy, 
Gandhi had drafted his reply immediately, then with a chuckle, 
told an aide, ‘wait a couple of days before putting it in the 
mail. I don’t want that young man to think I’m dying for his 

That ‘young man’ had accompanied his invitation with one 
of those gestures for which he was becoming noted and which 
sometimes infuriated his fellow Englishmen. He had offered 
to send his personal aircraft to Bihar to fly Gandhi to Delhi. 
Gandhi, however, had declined the offer. He had insisted on 
travelling, as he always did, in a third-class railway carriage. 

To underline the importance he attached to their first con- 
tact and to give their meeting a special cordiality, Mountbatten 
had asked his wife to be present. Now, contemplating the 
famous figure opposite them, worry and concern swept over 
the viceregal couple. The Mahatma, they both immediately 
sensed, was profoundly unhappy, trapped in the grip of some 
mysterious remorse. Had they done something wrong? Neg- 
lected some arcane law of protocol? 

Mountbatten gave his wife an anxious glance. ‘God,’ he 
thought, ‘what a terrible way to start things off!’ As politely 
as he could, he asked Gandhi if something was troubling 

A slow, sorrowful sigh escaped the Indian leader. ‘You 
know,’ he replied, ‘all my life, since I was in South Africa, I’ve 
renounced physical possessions.’ He owned virtually nothing, 
he explained: his Gita, the tin utensils from which he ate, 
mementoes of his stay in Yeravda prison, his three ‘gurus'. 
And his watch, his old eight-shilling Ingersoll he hung from 
a string around his waist because, if he was going to devote 

112 Freedom at Midnight 

every minute of his day to God’s work, he had to know what 
time it was. 

‘Do you know what?’ he asked sadly. They stole it. Someone 
in my railway compartment coming down to Delhi stole the 
watch.’ As the frail figure lost in his armchair spoke those 
words, Mountbatten saw tears shining in his eyes. In an instant, 
the Viceroy understood. It was not the loss of his watch that so 
pained Gandhi. What hurt was that they had not understood. It 
was not an eight-shilling watch an unknown hand had plucked 
from him in that congested railway car, but a particle of his 

Finally, after a long silence, Gandhi began to talk of India’s 
current dilemma. Mountbatten interrupted with a friendly 
wave of his hand. ‘Mr Gandhi,’ he said, ‘first, I want to know 
who you are.’ 

‘ The Viceroy’s words reflected a deliberate tactic. He was 
determined to get to know those Indian leaders before allowing 
them to begin assailing him with their minimum demands 
and final conditions. By putting them at ease, by getting them 
to confide in him, he hoped to create an atmosphere of mutual 
confidence and sympathy in which his own dynamic personal- 
ity could have greater impact. 

The Mahatma was delighted by the ploy. He loved to talk 
about himself and in the Mountbattens he had a pair of people 
genuinely interested in what he had to say. He rambled on 
about South Africa, his days as a stretcher-bearer in the Boer 
War, civil disobedience, the Salt March. Once he said, the 

Almost six months later, in September 1947, when Gandhi was staying in 
Birla House, New Delhi, a stranger appeared one afternoon asking to see the 
Mahatma. At first he refused to give his name or tell Gandhi’s secretary why 
he wanted to see him. Finally he admitted he had stolen Gandhi’s watch. He 
had come to return it and ask his forgiveness. ‘Forgive you?’ exclaimed the 
secretary. ‘He will embrace you.’ He took the man to Gandhi. He squatted 
before the Mahatma, chanting a few words the secretary could not hear. 
Then Gandhi embraced him and, giggling like a child who had recovered a 
lost toy, he called his followers to see the watch and meet the prodigal son 
who’d returned it. 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 113 

West had received its inspiration from the East in the messages 
of Zoroaster, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Rama. For 
centuries, however, the East had been conquered culturally by 
the West. Now the West, haunted by spectres like the atomic 
bomb, had need to look eastwards once again. There, he hoped, 
it might find the message of love and fraternal understanding 
he sought to preach. 

Their conversation went on for two hours. It was punctuated 
by a simple, yet extraordinary gesture, a gesture which pro- 
vided a clue as to how successful Mountbatten’s overtures 
had been, how responsive a chord they were striking in 

Halfway through their talks, the trio strolled into the 
Moghul Gardens for photographs. When they finished, they 
turned to re-enter the house. The 77-year-old leader loved to 
walk with his hands resting upon the shoulders of two young 
girls, to whom he fondly referred as his ‘crutches’. Now, the 
revolutionary who’d spent a lifetime struggling with the 
British, instinctively laid his hand upon the shoulder of 
Britain’s last Vicereine and, as tranquilly as if he were strolling 
off to his evening prayer meeting, re-entered the Viceroy’s 

By the time Gandhi returned to the Viceroy’s study for their 
second meeting, Delhi was already gasping in the first searing 
blast of India’s hot season. Under the sun’s white glare the 
bright dhak trees in the Moghul Gardens seemed to emit 
sparks, and an orange rind shrivelled into a crisp parchment 
minutes after it was peeled. The only fresh glade in the city 
was Louis Mountbatten’s study. The reverence for detail which 
had led him to paint the study had also led him to make 
sure it was equipped with the best air-conditioner in Delhi, a 
machine that allowed him to work in a refreshing 75 degrees. 

Its presence was nearly responsible for a catastrophe. Passing 
with brutal abruptness from Delhi’s furnace heat into the chilly 
study, Gandhi, the implacable foe of technology, got an 
unhappy introduction to the blessings of air-conditioning. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Seeing his half-naked guest trembling, Mountbatten rang for 
his ADC who arrived with his wife. 

'My God,’ exclaimed Edwina Mountbatten, ‘you’ll give the 
poor man pneumonia!’ 

She rushed to the machine, snapped it off, threw open the 
window, then hurried off to get one of her husband’s old Royal 
Navy sweaters to cover Gandhi’s shaking shoulders. 

When Gandhi was finally warm again, Mountbatten took 
his guest on to the terrace for tea. A brace of servants brought 
Mountbatten his in a bone white china service stamped with 
the viceregal crest. Manu, who had accompanied Gandhi, laid 
out the spare meal she’d brought along for him: lemon soup, 
goat s curds and dates. Gandhi ate it with a spoon whose 
handle had been broken above the ladle and replaced by a 
piece of bamboo lashed to its stub with a string. The battered 
tin plates in which it was served, however, were as English as 
the Sheffield sterling of the viceregal service. They came from 
Yeravda prison. 

Smiling, Gandhi proffered his goat’s curds to Mountbatten. 
‘It’s rather good,’ he said, ‘do try this.’ 

Mountbatten looked at the yellow, porridge-like sludge with 
something less than unalloyed delight. ‘I don’t think really 
I ever have, he murmured, hoping that those words might 
somehow discourage his guest’s effort at generosity. Gandhi 
was not, however, to be so easily dissuaded. 

Never mind, he replied, laughing, ‘there’s always a first 
time for everything. Try it now.’ 

Trapped, Mountbatten dutifully accepted a spoonful. It was, 
he thought, ‘ghastly’. 

The preliminaries of their conversations ended there on the 
lawn and Mountbatten got down to a process that had 
invariably taxed his predecessors’ patience and good temper, 
negotiating with Gandhi. 

The Mahatma had, indeed, been a difficult person for the 
British to deal with. Truth, to Gandhi, was the ultimate reality. 
Gandhi’s truth, however, had two faces, the absolute and the 
relative. Man, as long as he was in the flesh, had only fleeting 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 115 

intimations of absolute truth. He had to deal with relative 
truth in his daily existence. Gandhi liked to employ a parable 
to illustrate the difference between his two truths. Put your 
left hand in a bowl of ice-cold water, then in a bowl of luke- 
warm water, he would say. The lukewarm water feels hot. 
Then put the right hand in a bowl of hot water and into the 
same bowl of lukewarm water. Now the lukewarm water feels 
cold; yet its temperature is constant. The absolute truth is the 
water’s constant temperature, he would observe, but the rela- 
tive truth, perceived by the human hand, varied. As that par- 
able indicated, Gandhi’s relative truth was not a rigid thing. 
It could vary as his perceptions of a problem changed. That 
made him flexible but it also, to his British interlocutors, some- 
times made him appear a two-faced, cunning Asiatic. Even 
one of his disciples once exclaimed to him in exasperation: 
‘Gandhiji, I don’t understand you. How can you say one thing 
last week, and something quite different this week?’ 

‘Ah’, Gandhi replied, ‘because I have learned something 
since last week.’ 

India’s new Viceroy moved, therefore, into serious talk with 
Gandhi with trepidation. He was not persuaded that the little 
figure ‘chirping like a sparrow’ at his side could help him 
elaborate a solution to the Indian crisis, but he knew he could 
destroy his efforts to find one. The hopes of many another 
English mediator had foundered on the turns of his unpredict- 
able personality. It was Gandhi who had sent Cripps back to 
London empty-handed in 1942. His refusal to budge on a 
principle had helped thwart Wavell’s efforts to untie the Indian 
knot. His tactics had done much to frustrate the most recent 
British attempts to solve the problem, that of the Cabinet 
Mission whose plan was supposed to serve as Mountbatten’s 
point of departure. Only the evening before, Gandhi had reiter- 
ated to his prayer meeting that India would be divided, ‘over 
my dead body. So long as I am alive, I will never agree to the 
partition of India.’ 

If a reluctant Mountbatten was driven to the decision to 
partition India, he would find himself in the distasteful 

n6 Freedom at Midnight 

position of having to impose his will on Gandhi. It was not 
the elderly Mahatma’s body he would have to break, but his 

It had always been British policy not to yield to force, he told 
Gandhi, to open their talks on the right note, but his non-violent 
crusade had won and, come what may, Britain was going to leave 
India. Only one thing mattered in that coming departure, 
Gandhi replied. ‘Don’t partition India,’ he begged. Don’t divide 
India, the prophet of non-violence pleaded, even if refusing to 
do so meant shedding ‘rivers of blood’. 

Dividing India, Mountbatten assured Gandhi, was the last 
solution he wished to adopt. But what alternatives were open 
to him? 

Gandhi had one. So desperate was he to avoid partition that 
he was prepared for a Solomonic judgment. Give the Moslems 
the baby instead of cutting it in half. Place three hundred 
million Hindus under Moslem rule by asking his rival Jinnah 
and his Moslem League to form a government. Then hand 
over power to that government. Give Jinnah all India instead 
of just the part he wanted. 

Mountbatten was ready to grasp at any straw to avoid par- 
tition. The suggestion had an Alice in Wonderland ring to it, 
but then so had some of Gandhi s other ideas and they had 

‘Whatever makes you think your own Congress Party will 
accept?’ he asked Gandhi. 

Congress,’ Gandhi replied, ‘wants above all else to avoid 
partition. They will do anything to prevent it.’ 

What, Mountbatten asked, would Jinnah’s reaction be? 

‘If you tell him I am its author his reply will be: “Wily 
Gandhi”,’ the Mahatma said, laughing. 

Mountbatten was silent for a moment. There was much in 
Gandhi s proposal that seemed unworkable. He was not pre- 
pared to commit his own prestige to it at this early juncture. 
But neither was he going lightly to dismiss any idea that might 
hold India together. 

Look, he said, if you can bring me formal assurance that 


An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 

Congress will accept your scheme, that they 11 try sincerely to 
make it work, then I’m prepared to entertain the idea.’ 
Gandhi fairly flew out of his chair at his words. ‘I am entirely 
sincere,’ he assured Mountbatten. ‘I will tour the length and 
breadth of India to get the people to accept if that is your 

A few hours later, an Indian journalist spoke to Gandhi as 
he walked towards his evening prayer meeting. The Mahatma, 
he thought, seemed to bubble with happiness . As they 
approached the prayer ground, he suddenly turned to the 
newsman. With a gleeful smile, he whispered: ‘I think I’ve 
turned the tide.’ 


‘Why, this man is trying to bully me!’ an unbelieving Louis 
Mountbatten thought. Operation Seduction had come to a 
sudden halt at the rock-like figure planted opposite him. With 
his khadi dhoti whirled about his shoulders like a toga, his 
bald head glowing, his scowling demeanour, the man jammed 
into that chair looked to the Viceroy more like a Roman 
senator than an Indian politician. 

Vallabhbhai Patel, however, was India’s quintessential poli- 
tician. He was an Oriental Tammany Hall boss who ran the 
machinery of the Congress Party with a firm and ruthless 
hand. He should have been the easiest member of the Indian 
quartet for Mountbatten to deal with. Like the Viceroy, he 
was a practical, pragmatic man, a hard but realistic bargainer. 
Yet the tension between them was so real, so palpable, that it 
seemed to Mountbatten he could reach out and touch it. 

Its cause was in no way related to the great issues facing 
India. It was a slip of paper, a routine government minute 
issued by Patel’s Home Ministry, dealing with an appointment. 
Mountbatten, however, had read in its tone, in the way Patel 
had put it out, a calculated challenge to his authority. 

Patel had a well-earned reputation for toughness. He had 
an instinctive need to take the measure of a new interlocutor, 
to see how far he could push him. That piece of paper on his 

1J 8 Freedom at Midttight 

desk, Mountbatten was convinced, was a test, a little examin- 
ation he had to go through with Patel before he could get 
down to serious matters. 

Vallabhbhai Patel was passed a cable announcing his wife’s 
death as he was pacing the floor of a Bombay court-room 
summing up his case for the jury. He glanced at it, thrust it 
into his pocket, and continued his peroration without breaking 
off his sentence. 

That incident formed part of the legend of Vallabhbhai Patel 
and was a measure of the man. Emotion, one of his associates 
once observed, formed no part of his character. The remark 
was not wholly exact. Patel was an emotional man, but he 
never let those emotions break through the composed facade 
he turned to the world. If he gave off one salient impression, 
it was that of a man wholly in control of himself. 

In a land in which men threw their words around like 
sailors their money after three months at sea, Patel hoarded 
his phrases the way a miser hoards coins. His daughter, who 
had been his constant companion since his wife’s death, rarely 
exchanged ten sentences with him a day. When Patel did talk, 
however, people listened. 

Patel was Indian from the uppermost lump of his bald head 
to the calluses on the soles of his feet. His Delhi home was 
filled with books but every one of them was written by an 
Indian author about India. He was the only Indian leader who 
sprang from the soil of India. His father had been a peasant 
farmer in Gujerat province near Bombay and Patel still lived 
his life at a peasant’s rhythm. He rose faithfully at 4 a.m. and 
was in bed just as regularly each night at 9.30. The first waking 
hours of each day Patel spent on his toilet, doing the bulk of 
his reading, 30 newspapers sent to him daily from every part 
of India. His life was watched over with jealous vigilance by 
his daughter and only child, Maniben. For two decades, she 
had been his secretary, his ADC, his confidante, the mistress 
of his household. So close was their relationship they even 
shared the same bedroom. 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 119 

Patel’s vocation for Indian nationalism had come from his 
father who’d gone off to fight the British at the side of a local 
warlord in the 1857 Mutiny. He’d spent the winter nights of 
his boyhood around the dung fire of their peasants’ hut, listen- 
ing to his old soldier’s tales. Soon after, he left the land for 
good to work in the great textile mills of Ahmedabad where 
Gandhi was to found his first Indian ashram. He studied at 
night, saved almost every rupee he earned until, at 33, he was 
able to send himself to London to study the law. 

He never saw the London of the Mayfair drawing-rooms 
where Nehru had been an admired guest. The London he knew 
best was the library of the Inns of Court. He walked twice a 
day the ten miles separating the courts from his lodging to 
save the bus fare. The day he was called to the bar, he took 
another walk, to the docks, to book a passage home. Once he 
returned, he never left India again. 

He settled in Ahmedabad, practising law with brilliant effect 
for the mill owners whose wage slave he’d once been. Patel 
had not even looked up from his nightly bridge game the 
first time he’d heard Gandhi speak in the Ahmedabad Club. 
Someone, however, brought him a text of the Mahatma’s 
speech and as he read its lines a vision rose from its pages: 
the vision his father had inspired around a dung fire in the 
winter nights of his boyhood. 

He sought Gandhi out and offered him his services. In 1922 
Gandhi, anxious to see what civil disobedience might achieve, 
asked Patel to organize an experimental campaign among 
87,000 people in 137 villages in the county of Bardoli outside 
Bombay. His organization was so comprehensive, so complete, 
that the campaign succeeded beyond even Gandhi’s hopes. 
From that moment on, Patel had shared with Nehru the place 
just below Gandhi’s in the independence movement. 
Employing his special genius he had assembled the Congress 
Party’s machine, thrusting its tentacles into the remotest 
corners of India. 

Patel had always been profoundly wary of his brother in 
Congress khadi y Nehru. The two men were natural rivals and 


Freedom at Midnight 

their ideas of what independent India should be were markedly 
different. Patel had no use for Nehru’s Utopian dream of 
budding a new society. He dismissed his visions of a brave 
new Socialist world as ‘this parrot cry of Socialism’. Capitalist 
society worked, he maintained, the problem was to Indianize 
it, to make it work better, not jettison it for an impracticable 

‘Patel,’ one of his aides noted, ‘came from an industrial 
town, a centre for machines, factories and textiles. Nehru came 
from a place where they grew flowers and fruit.’ 

He scorned Nehru’s fascination with foreign affairs, the great 
debates of the world. He knew where power was to be found 
and that was where he was, in the Home Ministry, developing 
the loyalty of what would be independent India’s police, secur- 
ity, and information services, as he had developed the loyalty 
of the Congress machine. Nehru might wear Gandhi’s mantle 
but he walked with an uneasy tread, because he knew the 
legions behind him longed for another Caesar. Like Jinnah, 
with whom his relations were cordial, Patel was under- 
estimated, his importance undervalued by a world whose 
regards were riveted on Gandhi and Nehru. It was an error. 
Patel, one of his aides said, ‘was India’s last Moghul’. 

The Viceroy looked at the note which had offended him, then 
passed it across his desk to Patel. Quietly he asked him to 
withdraw it. Patel brusquely refused. 

Mountbatten studied the Indian leader. He was going to 
need the support of this man and the machinery he rep- 
resented. But he was sure he would never get it if he did not 
face him down now. 

‘Very well,’ said Mountbatten, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going 
to do. I’m going to order my plane.’ 

‘Oh,’ said Patel, ‘why?’ 

‘Because I’m leaving,’ Mountbatten replied. ‘I didn’t want 
this job in the first place. I’ve just been looking for someone 
like you to give me an excuse to throw it up and get out of 
an impossible situation.’ 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 


‘You don’t mean it!’ exclaimed Patel. 

‘Mean it?’ replied Mountbatten. ‘You don’t think I am going 
to stay here and be bullied by a chap like you, do you? If you 
think you can be rude to me and push me around, you’re 
wrong. You’ll either withdraw that minute or one of us is 
going to resign. And let me tell you that if I go, I shall first 
explain to your Prime Minister and to Mr Jinnah why I am 
leaving. The breakdown in India which will follow, the blood 
that will be shed, will be on your shoulders and no one else’s.’ 

Patel stared at Mountbatten in disbelief. 

Come, come, he declared, Mountbatten wasn’t going to 
throw over the Viceroyalty after only a month on the job. 

‘Mr Patel,’ Mountbatten answered, ‘you evidently don’t 
know me. Either you withdraw your minute here and now, 
or I shall summon the Prime Minister and announce my resig- 

A long silence followed. ‘You know,’ Patel finally sighed, 
‘the awful part is I think you mean it.’ 

‘You’re damned right I do,’ answered Mountbatten. 

Patel reached out, took the offending minute off Mount- 
batten’s desk and slowly tore it up. 


A lone light bulb, its contours speckled with carbonized insects, 
hung from the hut’s ceiling. Naked to the waist, Gandhi squat- 
ted on a straw mattress on the cement floor. The others, talking 
excitedly, were gathered around him. Dark eyes sparkling with 
awe and glee, the urchins of the Bhangi sweepers’ colony, the 
foetid slum of the Untouchables who swept Delhi’s streets and 
cleaned out her toilets, stared through the window at their 

The men crowded about Gandhi would be the leaders of a 
free India. They were there in that blighted slum, its air reeking 
from the stench of the human excrement rotting in its open 
sewers, its inhabitants’ faces crusted with the sores of a hun- 
dred diseases, because Gandhi had decided to pass his Delhi 
sojourn there. The struggle for the oppressed of Hindu society, 


Freedom at Midnight 

its Untouchables whom he called Harijans - Children of God 
- had rivalled the struggle for national freedom in Gandhi’s 

Untouchables constituted a sixth of India’s population. Sup- 
posedly condemned by their sins in a previous incarnation to 
a casteless existence, they were readily identifiable by the dark- 
ness of their skin, their cringing submissiveness, their ragged 
dress. Their name expressed the contamination which stained 
a caste Hindu at the slightest contact with them, a stain which 
had to be removed by a ritual, purifying bath. Even their 
footprints in the soil could defile some Brahmim neighbour- 
hoods. An Untouchable was obliged to shrink from the path 
of an approaching caste Hindu lest his shadow fall across his 
route and soil him. In some parts of India, Untouchables were 
allowed to leave their shacks only at night. There, they were 
known as Invisibles. 

No Hindu could eat in the presence of an Untouchable, 
drink water drawn from a well by his hands, use utensils he’d 
soiled by his touch. Many Hindu temples were closed to them. 
Their children were not accepted in schools. Even in death 
they remained pariahs. Untouchables were not allowed to use 
the common cremation ground. Invariably too poor to buy 
logs for their own funeral pyres, their corpses were usually 
consumed by vultures rather than flames. 

In some parts of India they were still bought and sold like 
serfs along with the estates they worked. A young Untouchable 
was generally assigned the same value as an ox. In a country 
of social progress, they enjoyed only one privilege. Whenever 
an epidemic struck down a sacred cow, the Untouchable who 
carted off the rotten carcass was allowed to sell the meat to 
his fellow outcasts. 

Since his return from South Africa, Gandhi had made their 
cause his. His first Indian ashram had nearly failed, because 
he had welcomed them into its folds. He massaged them, 
nursed them. He had even insisted on publicly performing 
the most demeaning act a caste Hindu could accomplish to 
demonstrate his loathing of Untouchability; he had cleaned 


An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 123 

out an Untouchable’s toilet. In 1932, he had nearly died for 
them, fasting to thwart a political reform which he feared 
would institutionalize their separation from Indian society. By 
always moving around India as they did, when they were able 
to travel, in third-class railway carriages, by living in their 
slums, Gandhi was trying to force them to remain conscious 
of their misery/ 

In a few months, weeks even, most of the men around 
Gandhi would be government ministers occupying the enor- 
mous offices from which the British had run India, crossing 
Delhi in chauffeur-driven American cars. He had deliberately 
obliged them to make this pilgrimage to one of India’s worst 
slums to give them a Gandhian reminder of the realities of 
the nation they would soon govern. 

It was India’s political realities, however, that occupied those 
men this evening. It was suffocatingly hot and to ease its 
miseries Gandhi was using his air-conditioner, a wet towel 
wrapped like a turban around his bald head. To his distress, 
the tempers of his followers were as warm as the night around 

When, a few days earlier, Gandhi had fervently assured 
Mountbatten that the Congress Party was prepared to do any- 
thing to prevent partition, he had been wrong. His error was 
the measure of the slowly widening gulf between the ageing 

* His effort was not without its disadvantages for his Congress colleagues. 
Shortly after his arrival in Delhi, Lord Mountbatten asked one of Gandhi s 
closest associates, the poetess Sarojini Naidu, whether, in view of the deter- 
mined poverty in which Gandhi chose to live, the Congress Party could really 
protect him. ‘Ah’, she laughed, ‘you and Gandhi may imagine that when he 
walks down that Calcutta station platform looking for a suitably crowded 
third-class carriage that he’s alone. Or, when he’s in his hut in the Untouch- 
ables’ Colony, he’s unprotected. What he doesn’t know, is that there are a 
dozen of our people dressed as Untouchables walking behind him, crowding 
into that carriage.’ When he moved into the Banghi Colony in Delhi, she 
explained, a score of Congress workers, again scrupulously clothed as harijans , 
were sent in to live in the hovels around his. ‘My dear Lord Louis,’ she 
concluded, ‘you will never know how much it has cost the Congress Party 
to keep that old man in poverty.’ 


Freedom at Midnight 

Mahatma and the men around him, the men he had developed 
as the leaders of the Congress Party. 

For a quarter of a century, those men had followed Gandhi. 
They had thrown off their western suits for his khadi, moved 
their fingers to the unfamiliar rhythms of the spinning-wheel. 
In his name they had marched into the flailing lathis of the 
police and the gates of British jails. Quelling occasional doubts, 
they had followed him on his improbable crusades to the 
improbable triumph now beckoning: independence wrested 
from the British by Gandhian non-violence. 

They had followed him for many reasons, but above all 
because they saw that his unique genius for communicating 
with the soul of India could draw mass support to their banner. 
The potential differences between them had been submerged 
in the common struggle with the British. Now, in that hot 
Delhi night, those differences began to emerge as they debated 
Gandhi’s plan to make Jinnah Prime Minister. If they refused 
to endorse his scheme, Gandhi argued, the new Viceroy might 
find himself driven into a corner from which the only escape 
would be partition. Walking from village to village in Noakhali 
and later Bihar, applying his ‘ointment’ to India’s sore spots, 
Gandhi had understood infinitely better than those political 
leaders in Delhi the tragedy partition might produce. He had 
seen in the huts and swamps of Noakhali what havoc commu- 
nal fury, once unleashed, could wreak. Partition, he argued, 
risked unleashing those passions, not dampening them. Des- 
perately he begged his followers to accept his idea as perhaps 
their last chance to keep India united and to prevent that 

He could not budge Nehru and Patel. There was a limit to 
the price they were prepared to pay to keep India united and 
handing over power to their foe, Jinnah, transgressed it. They 
did not share Gandhi’s conviction that partition would inevi- 
tably lead to terrible violence. Broken-hearted, Gandhi would 
have to report to the Viceroy that he had not been able to 
carry his colleagues with him. The real break was still some 
distance ahead, but Gandhi and those men he’d so patiently 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 125 

groomed were fast approaching a parting of the ways. The 
culmination of Gandhi’s crusade was now drawing near, and 
it would end as it had begun, in the stillness of his soul. 


There was no need for the air-conditioner whirring in the 
viceregal study that April afternoon. The chill emanating from 
the austere and distant leader of the Moslem League was quite 
sufficient to cool its atmosphere. From the instant he’d arrived, 
Mountbatten had found Mohammed Ali Jinnah in a most 
frigid, haughty and disdainful frame of mind. 

The key member of the Indian quartet, the man who would 
ultimately hold the solution to the sub-continent’s dilemma 
in his hands, had been the last of the Indian leaders to enter 
the Viceroy’s study. A quarter of a century later, an echo of 
his distant anguish still haunting his voice, Louis Mountbatten 
would recall, ‘I did not realize how utterly impossible my task 
in India was going to be until I met Mohammed Ali Jinnah 
for the first time.’ 

Their meeting had begun with an unhappy gaffe, a gaffe 
poignantly revealing of the meticulous, calculating Jinnah to 
whom no gesture could be spontaneous. Realizing he would 
be photographed with the Mountbattens, Jinnah had carefully 
memorized a pleasant little line to flatter Edwina Mountbatten, 
who he was sure would be posed between the Viceroy and 

Alas, poor Jinnah! It was he and not Edwina who wound 
up in the middle. But he couldn’t help himself. He was pro- 
grammed like a computer, and his carefully rehearsed line 
just had to come out. ‘Ah,’ he beamed, ‘a rose between two 

Inside the study, he began by informing Mountbatten he 
had come to tell him exactly what he was prepared to accept. 
As he had with Gandhi, Mountbatten interrupted with a wave 
of his hand. ‘Mr Jinnah,’ he said, ‘I am not prepared to discuss 
conditions at this stage. First, let’s make each other’s 

126 Freedom at Midnight 

Then, with his legendary charm and verve, Mountbatten 
turned the focus of Operation Seduction on the Moslem leader. 
Jinnah froze. To that aloof and reserved man who never unbent 
with even his closest associates, the very idea of revealing the 
details of his life and personality to a perfect stranger must 
have seemed appalling. 

Gamely Mountbatten struggled on, summoning up all the 
reserves of his gregarious, engaging personality. For what 
seemed to him like hours, his only reward was a series of 
monosyllabic grunts from the man beside him. Finally, after 
almost two hours, Jinnah began to soften. As the Moslem 
leader left his study, Mountbatten sighed to Alan Campbell- 
Johnson, his press attache: ‘My God, he was cold! It took most 
of the interview to unfreeze him.’ 

The man who would one day be hailed as the father of Pakistan 
had first been exposed to the idea at a black-tie dinner at 
London’s Waldorf Hotel in the spring of 1933. His host was 
Rahmat Ali, the graduate student who had set the idea on 
paper. Rahmat Ali had arranged the banquet with its oysters 
and un-Islamic Chablis at his own expense hoping to persuade 
Jinnah, India’s leading Moslem politician, to take over his 
movement. He received a chilly rebuff. Pakistan, Jinnah told 
him, was ‘an impossible dream’. 

The man whom the unfortunate graduate student had 
sought to make into the leader of a Moslem separatist move- 
ment had, in fact, begun his political career by preaching 
Hindu-Moslem unity. His family came from Gandhi’s Kathia- 
war peninsula. Indeed, had not Jinnah’s grandfather for some 
obscure reason become a convert to Islam, the two political 
foes would have been born into the same caste. Like Gandhi, 
Jinnah had gone to London to dine in the Inns of Court and 
be called to the bar. Unlike Gandhi however, he had come 
back from London an Englishman. 

He wore a monocle and superbly cut linen suits which he 
changed three or four times a day so as to remain cool and 
unruffled in the soggy Bombay climate. He loved oysters and 


An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 

caviare, champagne, brandy and good claret. A man of 
unassailable personal honesty and financial integrity, his 
canons were sound law and sound procedure. He was, accord- 
ing to one intimate, ‘the last of the Victorians, a parliamen- 
tarian in the mode of Gladstone or Disraeli. 

A brilliantly successful lawyer, Jinnah moved naturally to 
politics and for a decade worked to keep the Hindus and 
Moslems of Congress united in a common front against the 
British. His disenchantment with Congress dated from 
Gandhi’s accession to power. The impeccably dressed Jinnah 
was not going to be bundled off to some squalid British jail 
half naked in a dhoti wearing a silly little white cap. Civil 
disobedience, he told Gandhi, was for ‘the ignorant and the 

The turning point in Jinnah’s career came after the 1937 
elections when Congress refused to share with him and his 
Moslem League the spoils of office in those Indian provinces 
where there was a substantial Moslem minority. Jinnah was a 
man of towering vanity and he took Congress’s action as a 
personal rebuke. It convinced him he and the Moslem League 
would never get a fair deal from a Congress-run India. The 
former apostle of Hindu-Moslem unity became the unyielding 
advocate of Pakistan, the project he had labelled an ‘impossible 
dream’ barely four years earlier. 

A more improbable leader of India’s Moslem masses could 
hardly be imagined. The only thing Moslem about Mohammed 
Ali Jinnah was his parents’ religion. He drank, ate pork, 
religiously shaved his beard each morning and just as 
religiously avoided the mosque each Friday. God and the 
Koran had no place in Jinnah’s vision of the world. His political 
foe, Gandhi, knew more verses of the Moslem Holy Book than 
he did. He had been able to achieve the remarkable feat of 
securing the allegiance of the vast majority of India’s Moslems 
without being able to articulate more than a few sentences in 
their traditional tongue, Urdu. 

Jinnah despised India’s masses. He detested the dirt, the 
heat, the crowds of India. Gandhi travelled India in filthy 


Freedom at Midnight 

third-class railway carriages to be with the people. Jinnah rode 
first-class to avoid them. 

Where his rival made a fetish of simplicity, Jinnah revelled 
in pomp. He delighted in touring India's Moslem cities in 
princely processions, riding under victory arches on a kind of 
Rosebowl style float, preceded by silver-harnessed elephants 
and a band booming out ‘God Save The King' because, Jinnah 
observed, it was the only tune the crowd knew. 

His life was a model of order and discipline. Even the phlox 
and petunias of his gardens marched out from his mansion 
in straight, disciplined lines, and when the master of the house 
paused there it was not to contemplate the beauty of his plants 
but to verify the precision of their alignment. Law books and 
newspapers were his only reading. Indeed, newspapers seemed 
to be this strange man's passion. He had them mailed to him 
from all over the world. He cut them up, scrawled notes in 
their margins, meticulously pasted them into scrapbooks that 
grew in dusty piles in his office cupboards. 

Jinnah had only scorn for his Hindu rivals. He labelled 
Nehru ‘a Peter Pan’, a ‘literary figure' who ‘should have been 
an English professor, not a politician', ‘an arrogant Brahmin 
who covers his Hindu trickiness under a veneer of Western 
education'. Gandhi, to Jinnah, was ‘a cunning fox’, ‘a Hindu 

The sight of the Mahatma, during an interval in a conver- 
sation in Jinnah's mansion, stretched out on one of his priceless 
Persian carpets, his mudpack on his belly, was something Jin- 
nah had never forgotten - or forgiven. 

Among his Moslems Jinnah had no friends, only followers. 
He had associates, not disciples and, with the exception of his 
sister, ignored his family. He lived alone with his dream of 
Pakistan. He was almost six feet tall but weighed barely one 
hundred and twenty pounds. The skin on his face was stretched 
so fine that his prominent cheekbones below seemed to emit a 
translucent glow. He had thick, silver-grey hair, and - curiously 
enough for a man whose sole companion for seventeen years 
had been a dentist, his sister - a mouthful of rotting yellow 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 


teeth. So stern, so rigorously composed was Jinnah’s appear- 
ance he gave off an aura of steely, spartan strength. It was an 
illusion. He was a frail, sick man who already, in the words 
of his physician, had been living for three years on ‘will-power, 
whisky and cigarettes’. 

It was the first of those that was the key to the character 
and achievements of linnah. His rivals accused him of many 
a sin, his friends of many a slight. But no one, friend or 
foe, would ever accuse Mohammed Ali Jinnah of a lack of 

Mountbatten and Jinnah held six critical meetings during the 
first fortnight of April 1947. They were the vital conversations 
- not quite ten hours in length - which ultimately determined 
the resolution of the Indian dilemma. Mountbatten went into 
them armed with ‘the most enormous conceit in my ability 
to persuade people to do the right thing, not because I am 
persuasive so much as because I have the knack of being able 
to present the facts in their most favourable light’. As he would 
later recall, he ‘tried every trick I could play, used every appeal 
I could imagine’, to shake Jinnah’s resolve to have partition. 
Nothing would. There w^s no argument that could move him 
from his consuming determination to realize the impossible 
dream of Pakistan. 

Jinnah owed his commanding position to two things. He 
had made himself absolute dictator of the Moslem League. 
There were men below him who might have been prepared to 
negotiate a compromise but, so long as Mohammed Ali Jinnah 
was alive, they would hold their silence. Second, more impor- 
tant, was the memory of the blood spilled in the streets of 
Calcutta a year before. 

Mountbatten and Jinnah did agree on one point at the 
outset - the need for speed. India, Jinnah declared, had gone 
beyond the stage at which a compromise solution was possible. 
There was only one solution, a speedy ‘surgical operation’. 
Otherwise, he warned, India would perish. 

When Mountbatten expressed concern lest partition might 


Freedom at Midnight 

produce bloodshed and violence, Jinnah reassured him. Once 
his ‘surgical operation’ had taken place, all troubles would 
cease and India’s two halves would live in harmony and happi- 
ness. It was, Jinnah told Mountbatten, like a court case he’d 
handled between two brothers embittered by the shares 
assigned them under their father’s will. Yet, two years after 
the court had adjudicated their dispute, they were the greatest 
friends. That, he promised the Viceroy, would be the case in 

The Moslems of India, Jinnah insisted, were a nation with 
a ‘distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, 
art and architecture, laws and moral codes, customs and calen- 
dar, history and traditions’. 

‘India has never been a true nation,’ Jinnah asserted. ‘It only 
looks that way on the map. The cows I want to eat, the Hindu 
stops me from killing. Every time a Hindu shakes hands with 
me he has to wash his hands. The only thing the Moslem has 
in common with the Hindu is his slavery to the British.’ 

Their arguments became, the Viceroy would later recall, an 
‘amusing and rather tragic game of round and round the 
mulberry bush’; Jinnah, the March Hare of Alice in Wonder- 
land, never conceding a point; Mountbatten, the determined 
advocate of unity, driving at Jinnah from every angle, until he 
was afraid lest, as he noted at the time, ‘I drove the old gentle- 
man quite mad.’ 

For Jinnah, the division he proposed was the natural course. 
That division, however, would have to produce a viable state 
and that, Jinnah argued, meant that two of India’s great prov- 
inces, the Punjab and Bengal, would have to go into his Paki- 
stan, despite the fact that each contained enormous Hindu 

Mountbatten could not agree. The basis of Jinnah ’s argu- 
ment for Pakistan was that India’s Moslem minority should 
not be ruled by its Hindu majority. How then justify taking 
the Hindu minorities of Bengal and the Punjab into a Moslem 
state? If Jinnah insisted on dividing India to get his Islamic 
state, then the very logic he’d used to get it would compel 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 131 

Mountbatten to divide the Punjab and Bengal as part of the 

Jinnah protested. That would give him an economically 
unviable, ‘moth-eaten Pakistan’. Mountbatten, who didn’t 
want to give him any Pakistan at all, told the Moslem leader, 
that if he felt the nation he was to receive was as ‘moth-eaten’ 
as all that, he’d prefer he didn’t take it. 

‘Ah,’ Jinnah would counter, ‘Your Excellency doesn’t under- 
stand. A man is a Punjabi or a Bengali before he is Hindu or 
Moslem. They share a common history, language, culture and 
economy. You must not divide them. You will cause endless 
bloodshed and trouble.’ 

‘Mr Jinnah, I entirely agree.’ 

‘You do?’ 

‘Of course,’ Mountbatten would continue. ‘A man is not 
only a Punjabi or Bengali before he is a Hindu or a Moslem, 
he is an Indian before all else. You have presented the 
unanswerable argument for Indian unity.’ 

‘But you don’t understand at all,’ Jinnah would counter, 
and the discussions would start around the mulberry bush 

Mountbatten was stunned by the rigidity of Jinnah’s pos- 
ition. ‘I never would have believed,’ he later recalled, ‘that an 
intelligent man, well-educated, trained in the Inns of Court, 
was capable of simply closing his mind as Jinnah did. It wasn’t 
that he didn’t see the point. He did, but a kind of shutter 
came down. He was the evil genius in the whole thing. The 
others could be persuaded, but not Jinnah. While he was alive 
nothing could be done.’ 

The climax to their talks came on 10 April, less than three 
weeks after Mountbatten’s arrival in India. For two hours he 
begged, cajoled, argued, and pleaded with Jinnah to keep India 
united. With all the eloquence he could command, he painted 
a picture of the greatness India could achieve, 400 million 
people of different races and creeds, bound together by a Cen- 
tral Union Government, with all the economic strength that 
would accrue to them from increased industrialization, playing 


Freedom at Midnight 

a great part in world affairs as the most progressive, single 
entity in the Far East. Surely, Mr Jinnah did not want to 
destroy all that, to condemn the sub-continent to the existence 
of a third-rate power? 

Jinnah remained unmoved. He was, Mountbatten sadly con- 
cluded, ‘a psychopathic case, hell bent on this Pakistan.’ 

Meditating alone in his study after Jinnah’s departure, 
Mountbatten realized he was probably going to have to give 
him what he wanted. His first obligation in New Delhi was to 
the nation that had sent him there, Britain. He longed to 
preserve India’s unity, but not at the expense of his country 
becoming hopelessly entrapped in an India collapsing in chaos 
and violence. 

He had to have a solution, he had to have it fast, and he 
could not impose it by force. Military command had given 
Mountbatten a penchant for rapid, decisive actions, such as 
the one he now took. In future years, his critics would assail 
him for having reached it too quickly, for acting like an 
impetuous sailor and not a statesman. Mountbatten, however, 
was not going to waste any more time on what he was certain 
would be futile arguments. He could argue with Jinnah, he 
concluded, until hell froze over, and hell in India would be 
the only consequence. 

He was prepared to acknowledge with blunt realism that 
Operation Seduction had failed to make an impact on the 
Moslem leader. The partition of India seemed increasingly the 
only escape. It now remained for Mountbatten to get Nehru 
and Patel to accept the principle and to find a plan for it which 
could win their support. 

The following morning he reviewed his talk with Jinnah for 
his staff. Then, sadly, he turned to his Chief of Staff, Lord 
Ismay. The time had come, he said, to begin drawing up a 
plan for the partition of India. 


Inevitably, Mountbatten *s decision would lead to one of the 
great dramas of modem history. Whatever the manner in 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 


which it was executed, it was bound to end in the mutilation 
of a great nation whose unity was the most imposing result 
of three and a half centuries of British colonization. To satisfy 
the exigent demands of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, two of India’s 
most distinctive entities, the Punjab and Bengal, would have 
to be carved up. The result would make Pakistan a geographic 
aberration, a nation of two heads separated by 970 miles of 
Himalayan peaks and Indian territory. Twenty days, more time 
than was required to sail from Karachi to Marseilles, would 
be needed to make the sea trip around the sub-continent from 
one half of Pakistan to the other. A non-stop flight between 
its two parts would require a four-engined aircraft, machines 
which would prove expensive luxuries for the new state. 

If the geographical distance dividing the two halves of Paki- 
stan would be great, however, the psychological distance 
between the two peoples inhabiting them would be staggering. 
Apart from a common faith in Allah the One, the Merciful, 
Punjabis and Bengalis shared nothing. They were as different 
as Finns and Greeks. The Bengalis were short, dark and agile, 
racially a part of the masses of Asia. The Punjabis, in whose 
veins flowed the blood of thirty centuries of conquerors, were 
scions of the steppes of Central Asia, and their Aryan features 
bore the traces of Turkestan, Russia, Persia, the deserts of 
Arabia. Neither history nor language nor culture offered a 
bridge by which those two peoples might communicate. Their 
marriage in the common state of Pakistan would be a union 
created against all the dictates of logic. 

The Punjab was the crown jewel of India. Half the size of 
France, it ran from the Indus River in the north-west all the 
way to the outskirts of Delhi. It was a land of sparkling rivers 
and golden fields of wheat, great rich fields rolling down to a 
distant blue horizon, an oasis blessed by the Gods in the midst 
of India’s arid face. Its name meant ‘Country of Five Rivers’, 
after the five torrents to whose waters the Punjab owed its 
natural fertility. The most famous of them was one of the great 
rivers of the globe, the Indus, which had given its name to the 
Indian sub-continent. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Five thousand years of tumultuous history had fashioned 
the Punjab’s character and given it its identity. Its plains had 
resounded to the galloping hooves of Asia’s conquering hordes. 
It was in the Punjab that the celestial song of Hinduism’s 
sacred book, the Bhagavad Gita , had been inspired by a mystic 
dialogue between Lord Krishna and the warrior king Arjuna. 
The Persian legions of Darius and Cyrus, the Macedonians 
of Alexander the Great had camped on its plains. Mauryas, 
Scythians, Parthians had occupied them before being dispersed 
by waves of Huns and the Caliphs of Islam bringing their 
monotheistic faith to India’s polytheistic Hindu millions. 
Three centuries of Moghul domination brought India to the 
apogee of its power and, sprinkled it with its priceless heritage 
of monuments. Finally the Punjab’s indigenous Sikhs, with 
their rolled beards and their uncut hair packed in their multi- 
coloured turbans, conquered the province in their turn before 
succumbing to its latest occupants, the British. 

The Punjab was a blend as subtle and complex as the mosaics 
decorating the monuments of its glorious Moghul past. To 
divide it would force an irreparable wound upon its popu- 
lation. Fifteen million Hindus, sixteen million Moslems and 
five million Sikhs shared its 17,932 towns and villages. Although 
divided by religion, they spoke a common language, clung to 
common traditions and an equal pride in their distinctive 
Punjabi personality. Their economic co-existence was 
fashioned even more intricately. The area’s prosperity rested 
upon a man-made miracle which, by its very nature, could 
not be divided, the immense network of irrigation canals built 
by the British which had made the Punjab the granary of India. 
Running from east to west across the entire province, their 
nourishing fingers had brought vast stretches of arid desert 
under cultivation and enriched the existence of millions of 
Punjabis. The province’s proud network of railways and roads 
designed to deliver the Punjab’s products to the rest of India, 
followed the same pattern. Wherever it wer t, the frontier of 
a partitioned Punjab would have to run from north to south, 
slicing the province’s vascular system in wo. Nor could any 

The last Viceroy and Vicereine pose before the grand staircase of Viceroy’s House with 
some of the 5,000 chamberlains, cooks, stewards, bearers, messengers, valets, horsemen, 
guards and gardeners who constituted the viceregal establishment. 

‘A rose between two thorns’: Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s joke misfired when the 
photographer placed him in the centre between the two Mountbattens instead of 
assigning that position to Lady Mountbatten. 

Gandhi rests his hand on Lady Mountbatten’s shoulder as they enter the Viceregal 
Lodge, New Delhi, before Gandhi’s first conference with Lord Mountbatten. 

With his personal emblem, a freshly plucked rose, in the buttonhole of his 
tunic, Jawaharlal Nehru poses for a moment in the garden of Viceroy s 

Providence, Kipling wrote, created the Maharajas to offer mankind a spectacle. In 1947 
India’s 565 Maharajas, nawabs, princes and rajas still ruled over a third of India’s land 
surface and a population the size of the United States. 

Above . The Maharaja of Patiala marches to his coronation under a golden umbrella, with 
a diamond necklace assessed by Lloyd’s at half a million pounds around his neck. 

Below. An elderly Maharaja of Bikaner receives his weight in gold as a birthday present. 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 135 

frontier be drawn that would not cut the proud and bellicose 
Sikh community in half, leaving at least two million Sikhs, 
with the rich lands they had reclaimed from the desert and 
some of their most sacred sites, inside a Moslem state. 

Indeed, wherever the boundary line went, the result was 
certain to be nightmare for millions of human beings. Only 
an interchange of populations on a scale never realized before 
in history could sort out the havoc it would wreak. From the 
Indus to the bridges of Delhi, for over 500 miles, there was not 
a single town, not a single village, cotton grove or wheat field 
which would not somehow be threatened if the partition plan 
Lord Ismay had been ordered to prepare were carried out. 

The division of Bengal at the other end of the sub-continent 
held out the possibilities of another tragedy. Harbouring more 
people than Great Britain and Ireland combined, Bengal con- 
tained 35 million Moslems and 30 million Hindus in an expanse 
of land running from tiger-stalked jungles at the foot of the 
Himalayas to the steaming marshes through which the thou- 
sand fingers of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers drained 
into the Bay of Bengal. Despite its division into two religious 
communities, Bengal, even more than the Punjab, was a dis- 
tinct entity. Whether Hindus or Moslems, Bengalis sprang 
from the same racial stock, spoke the same language, shared 
the same culture. They sat on the floor in a certain Bengali 
manner, ordered the sentences they spoke in a peculiar Bengali 
cadence, each rising to a final crescendo, celebrated their own 
Bengali New Year on 15 April. Its poets, like Tagore, were 
regarded with pride by all Bengalis. 

They were the descendants of a culture whose roots went 
back in time to the pre-Christian era when a Buddhist civiliz- 
ation flourished in Bengal. Obliged to renounce their Bu ihist 
faith by a Hindu dynasty in the first centuries after Christ, the 
Bengalis of the east greeted the arrival of Mohummed’s war- 
riors along their frontier as a release from Hindu oppression 
and eagerly embraced Islam. Since then, Bengal had been 
divided into religious halves, Moslems to the east, Hindus to 
the west. 


Freedom at Midnight 

In 1905) Lord Curzon, one of the most able Viceroys to rule 
India, tried to take advantage of that religious split to divide 
Bengal into two administratively more manageable halves. His 
efforts ended in failure six years later when a bloody revolt 
proved the Bengalis more prone to nationalist sentiments than 
religious passions. 

If the Punjab seemed singled out for the blessings of the 
Divine, Bengal appeared the object of its malediction. A land 
seared by droughts alternating with frightening typhoon 
floods, Bengal was a kind of immense, steaming swamp in 
whose humid atmosphere flourished the two crops to which 
it owed a precarious prosperity, rice and jute. The cultivation 
of those two crops followed the province’s religious frontiers, 
rice to the Hindu west, jute to the Moslem east. 

The key to Bengal’s existence, however, lay not in its crops. 
It was a city, the city which had been the springboard for 
Britain s conquest of India, the second city, after London, of 
the Empire, and first port of Asia, Calcutta, site of the terrible 
killings of August 1946. 

Everything in Bengal, roads, railways, raw materials, indus- 
try, funnelled into Calcutta. If Bengal were split into its eastern 
and western halves, Calcutta, because of its physical location, 
seemed certain to wind up in the Hindu west, which would 
condemn the Moslem east to slow but inexorable asphyxiation. 
If almost all of the world’s jute grew in East Bengal, all the 
factories which transformed it into rope, sacks, and cloth were 
clustered around Calcutta in West Bengal. The Moslem east 
which produced the jute grew almost no food at all, and its 
millions survived on the rice grown in the Hindu west. 

In April 1947, Bengal’s last British Governor, Sir Frederick 
Burrows, an ex-sergeant in the Grenadier Guards and railways 
trade union leader, predicted that East Bengal, destined one 
day to become Bangladesh, was condemned, in the event of 
India’s partition, to turn into ‘the greatest rural slum in 

No aspect of partition, however, was more illogical than the 
fact that, even if Jinnah’s Pakistan were fully realized, it would 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 137 

still deliver barely half of India’s Moslems from the alleged 
inequities of Hindu majority rule which justified the state 
in the first place. The remaining Moslems were so scattered 
throughout the rest of India that it was humanly impossible 
to separate them. Islands in a Hindu sea, they would be the 
first victims of a conflict between the countries, India’s Moslem 
hostages to Pakistan’s good behaviour. Indeed, even after the 
amputation, India would still harbour almost 50 million Mos- 
lems, a figure which would make her the third largest Moslem 
nation in the world, after Indonesia and the new state drawn 
from her own womb. 


If Louis Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru, or Mahatma Gandhi 
had been aware in April 1947 of one extraordinary secret, the 
division threatening India might have been avoided. That 
secret was frozen on to the grey surface of a piece of film, a 
film which could have upset the Indian political equation and 
would almost certainly have changed the course of Asian his- 
tory. Yet so precious was the secret that even the British CID, 
one of the most effective investigative agencies in the world, 
was ignorant of its existence. 

The heart of the film was two dark circles no bigger than a 
pair of ping-pong balls. Each was ringed by an irregular white 
border like the corona of the sun eclipsed by the moon. Above 
them, a galaxy of little white spots stretched up the film’s grey 
surface towards the top of the thoracic cage. That film was an 
X-ray, the X-ray of a pair of human lungs. The black circles 
were pulmonary cavities, gaping holes in which the lung’s vital 
tissues no longer existed. The little chain of white dots indi- 
cated areas where more pulmonary or pleural tissue was 
already hardening and confirmed the diagnosis: tuberculosis 
was devouring the lungs. The damage was already so extensive 
that the human being whose lungs were on that film could 
have barely two or three years to live. 

Sealed in an unmarked envelope, those X-rays were locked 
in the office safe of Dr J. A. L. Patel, a Bombay physician. The 


Freedom at Midnight 

lungs depicted on them belonged to the rigid and inflexible 
man who had frustrated Louis Mountbatten’s efforts to pre- 
serve India’s unity. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the one unmovable 
obstacle between the Viceroy and Indian unity, was living 
under a sentence of death. 

In June 1946, nine months before Mountbatten’s arrival, Dr 
Patel had lifted those X-rays from their developing bath and 
discovered the terrible disease that threatened to put a rapid 
end to Jinnah’s life. Tuberculosis, the cruel scourge which 
annually took the lives of millions of undernourished Indians, 
had invaded the lungs of the prophet of Pakistan at the age 
of seventy. 

All his life, Jinnah had suffered from delicate health due to 
his weak pulmonary system. Long before the war, he’d been 
treated in Berlin for complications arising out of an attack of 
pleurisy. Frequent bronchitis since then had diminished his 
strength and weakened his respiratory system to the point at 
which the effort demanded by a major speech would leave 
him panting for hours. 

In Simla in late May 1946, bronchitis had again struck the 
Moslem League leader. Jinnah’s devoted sister Fatima got him 
on a train to Bombay, but en route his condition worsened. 
So alarming did his state become that she sent an urgent 
call to Dr Patel. Patel boarded his train outside Bombay. His 
distinguished patient’s condition, he quickly discovered, was 
‘desperately bad’. Warning Jinnah he would collapse if he tried 
to get through the reception waiting for him at Bombay’s 
Grand Railroad Station, Patel bundled him off the train at a 
suburban station and into a hospital. It was while he was there, 
slowly regaining his strength, that Patel discovered what would 
become the most closely guarded secret in India. 

If Jinnah had been just any unfortunate victim of tubercu- 
losis, he would have been confined in a sanatorium for the 
rest of his life. Jinnah, however, was not a normal patient. 
When he was discharged from hospital, Patel brought him to 
his office. Sadly, he revealed to his friend and patient the fatal 
illness which was stalking him. He was, he told Jinnah, reaching 


An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 

the end of his physical resources. Unless he severely reduced 
his work load, rested much more frequently, gave up cigarettes 
and alcohol, and eased the pressures on his system, he did not 
have more than one or two years to live. 

Jinnah received that harsh news impassively. Not the slight- 
est expression crossed his pale face. There was no question, 
he told Dr Patel, of abandoning his life’s crusade for a sana- 
torium bed. Nothing except the grave was going to turn him 
from the task to which he d appointed himself of leading 
India’s Moslems at this critical juncture in their history. He 
would follow the doctor s advice and reduce his work load 
only in so far as it was compatible with that great duty. Jinnah 
knew that if his Hindu enemies learned he was dying, their 
whole political outlook could change. They might wait until 
he was in his grave, then unravel his dream with the more 
malleable men underneath him in the hierarchy of the Moslem 

Fortified every two weeks by injections given him in secret 
by Dr Patel, Jinnah returned to work. He made no effort 
whatsoever to follow his doctor’s advice. He was not going to 
let his rendezvous with death cheat him of his other rendezvous 
with history. With extraordinary courage, with an intense and 
consuming zeal that sent his life s candle guttering out in a 
last harsh burst of flame, Jinnah lunged for his lifetime’s goal. 
‘Speed,’ Jinnah had told Mountbatten in their first discussions 

* Mountbatten’s predecessor, Lord Wavell, noted in his diary on 10 January 
and 28 February 1947, reports that Jinnah was ‘a- sick man’. They did not, 
however, indicate whether the Viceroy was aware of how grave the Moslem 
leader’s illness really was. In any event, Mountbatten himself was never given 
in any of his briefings any hint that Jinnah was a dying man, information 
which, if available, he noted a quarter of a century after Jinnah’s death, would 
have had a vital bearing on his actions in India. There are indications Jinnah’s 
second in command, Liaqat Ali Khan, was aware of his illness in the last six 
months of his life. His daughter Wadia told the authors of this book, in an 
interview in Bombay in December 1973, that she only became aware her 
father had tuberculosis after his death. She herself is personally persuaded 
Jinnah confided his secret to his sister Fatima, but he probably would not 
let her reveal it to anyone else or seek help for him. 


Freedom at Midnight 

of India’s future, was ‘the essence of the contract’. And so, 
too, had it become the essence of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s 
own contract with destiny. 

The eleven men seated around the oval table in the conference 
chamber solemnly waited for Lord Mountbatten to begin their 
proceedings. They were, in a sense, the descendants of the 24 
founding fathers of the East India Company, the men whose 
mercantile appetites had sent Britain along the sea-lanes to 
India three and a half centuries earlier. They were the pillars 
of the empire born of their avarice, the governors of the eleven 
provinces of British India. They stood at the pinnacle of careers 
of service to the Indian Empire, savouring that high authority 
of which they might have dreamed as young men in the remote 
and lonely postings of their youth. Only two of them were 

Capable and dedicated men, they offered India the respon- 
sible exercise of authority acquired by a lifetime of service. 
India, in its turn, offered them an opportunity to live in a 
splendour almost regal in its dimension. The official residences 
in which they dwelled were palaces staffed by scores of 
retainers. Their writ ran over territories as vast and as populous 
as the largest nations of Europe. They crossed their territories 
in the comfort of their private railway cars, their cities in 
Rolls-Royces with turbaned escorts, their jungles on elephant 

Ranged around the table in order of precedence came first 
the heads of the three great Presidencies; Bombay, Madras and 
Bengal. The other provinces followed: the Punjab first, then 
Sind with its port of Karachi, United Provinces, Bihar, Orissa, 
Assam, site of the famous tea plantations on the Burmese 
frontier, the Central Province and finally the North-west Fron- 
tier Province guarding the Khyber Pass and the Afghan 

Their meeting was an awkward confrontation for Mount- 
batten. At 46, he was the youngest man at the table. He had 
brought to Delhi none of the usual qualifications for his office, 


An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 

a brilliant parliamentary career or a background of adminis- 
trative achievement. He was a comparative stranger in the 
India to which most of the eleven governors had devoted an 
entire career, mastering its complex history, learning its dia- 
lects, becoming, as some of them had, world-renowned experts 
on phases of its existence. They were proud men, certain to 
be sceptical of any plan put before them by the neophyte in 
their midst. 

Yet Mountbatten was personally convinced his lack of 
expertise was not the disadvantage it seemed. They, the experts, 
had not found a solution because, he suspected, ‘they were 
too steeped in the old British Raj school and were always trying 
to find a solution which would do the least possible violence 
to the system as it existed.’ Mountbatten began by asking each 
governor to describe the situation in his province. Eight of 
them painted a picture of dangerous, troubled areas, but prov- 
inces in which the situation still remained under control. It 
was the portrait offered by the governors of the three critical 
provinces, the Punjab, Bengal, and the North-west Frontier 
(the N WFP), that sobered the gathering. 

His features drawn, his eyes heavy with fatigue, Sir Olaf 
Caroe, Cerberus at the passes through which invaders had 
poured into India for thirty centuries, spoke first. He had 
been kept awake all night by a stream of cables detailing fresh 
outbursts of trouble in his province. Almost all Caroe’s career 
had been spent on that edge of the Empire. No westerner alive 
could rival his knowledge of its unruly Pathan tribesmen, their 
culture and language. His capital of Peshawar still harboured 
one of the world’s most picturesque bazaars and once a week 
a camel caravan from Kabul came down the Khyber Pass to 
nourish it with skins, fruit, wool, crockery, watches, sugar, 
some of those goods smuggled out of the USSR. The labyrin- 
thine grottoes of his mountainous province sheltered scores 
of secret arms factories from which flowed a profusion of 
ornate and deadly weapons to arm Masudis, Afridis, Wazirs, 
the legendary warrior tribes of the Pathans. 

The province was close to disintegration, he warned, and if 


Freedom at Midnight 

this happened, the old British nightmare of invading hordes 
from the north-west forcing the gates of the empire might be 
realized. The Pathan tribes of Afghanistan were poised to come 
pouring down the Khyber Pass to Peshawar and the banks of 
the Indus in pursuit of land they’d claimed as theirs for a 
century. ‘If we’re not jolly careful,’ he said, ‘we are going to 
have an international crisis on our hands.’ 

The portrait drawn by Sir Evan Jenkins, the taciturn gov- 
ernor of the Punjab, was even grimmer. A Welshman, Jenkins 
had given himself to the Punjab with a passion equal to Caroe’s 
for the Frontier. So total was his devotion that the old bachelor 
was accused by his critics of having married his Punjab ‘to the 
point where he forgot the rest of India existed’. Whatever 
solution was chosen for India’s problems, he declared, it was 
certain to bring violence to the Punjab. At least four divisions 
would be needed to keep order if partition were decided upon. 
Even if it were not, they would still face a demand by the 
Sikhs for an area of their own. ‘It’s absurd to predict the 
Punjab will go up in flames if it’s partitioned,’ he said, ‘it’s 
already in flames.’ 

The third governor, Sir Frederick Burrows of Bengal, was 
ill in Calcutta, but the briefing on the province’s situation as 
offered by his deputy was every bit as disquieting as the reports 
from the NWFP and the Punjab. 

When those reports were finally finished, Mountbatten’s 
staff passed out a set of papers to each governor. They carried 
the details, Mountbatten announced, ‘of one of the possible 
plans under examination’. It was called, ‘for easy reference’, 
Plan Balkan and it was the first draft of the partition plan 
Mountbatten had ordered his Chief of Staff Lord Ismay to 
prepare a week earlier. 

A shock ran through the assembled governors as they began 
to turn its pages. They were apostles and architects of Indian 
unity. Most of them had spent their lives reinforcing the ties 
they now learned a departing Britain might decide to dis- 

The plan, aptly named after the Balkanization of the States 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 143 

of Central Europe after World War I, would allow each of 
India’s eleven provinces to choose whether it wished to join 
Pakistan or remain in India; or, if a majority of both its Hindus 
and Moslems agreed, become independent. Mountbatten told 
his assembled governors he was not going ‘lightly to abandon 
hope for a united India’. He wanted the world to know the 
British had made every effort possible to keep India united. If 
Britain failed it was of the utmost importance that the world 
know it was, ‘Indian opinion rather than a British decision 
that had made partition the choice.’ He himself thought a 
future Pakistan was so inherently unviable that it should ‘be 
given a chance to fail on its own demerits’, so that later the 
Moslem League could revert to a unified India with honour’. 

Those eleven men displayed no enthusiasm for partition. 
Nor, however, did they oppose it. The fact was that even they 
did not have any other solution to propose. 

That evening, in the state dining-room of Viceroy’s House, 
with the oil portraits of India’s first nineteen Viceroys looking 
down upon them like ghostly judges from the past, the gov- 
ernors and their wives closed their last conference with a for- 
mal banquet presided over by Lord and Lady Mountbatten. 
At the end of the dinner, the servants brought out decanters 
of port. When the glasses were filled, Louis Mountbatten stood 
and raised his glass to their company. None of them realized 
it, but a tradition was ending with his gesture. Never again 
would a Viceroy of India propose to his assembled governors 
the traditional toast Mountbatten now offered to his cousin 
more than 4,000 miles away: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the King 

The Frontier and the Punjab , Late April 1947 

The awesome white cone of Nanga Parbat filled the round 
windows of the viceregal York. It thrust its sculpted peak 25,000 
feet into the air a hundred miles north of the aircraft. From 
one end of the horizon to another, the plane’s passengers could 
follow the dark snow-capped walls of the great mountain range 


Freedom at Midnight 

to which it belonged, the Hindu Kush, the barrier to those 
desolate, frozen reaches known as the Roof of the World. The 
York twisted south, flew above the serpentine coils of the Indus 
and began its approach over the mud-walled, fortress-like 
compounds of Peshawar, storied capital of the North-west 
Frontier Province. 

As the plane swept towards the airport, its passengers sud- 
denly caught a glimpse of an enormous, milling mob barely 
restrained by a beleaguered line of police. Louis Mountbatten 
had decided to suspend temporarily the conversations in his 
air-conditioned office so as personally to take the political 
temperature of his two most troubled provinces, the Punjab 
and the NWFP. 

The news he was coming had swept over the Frontier. In 
24 hours, summoned by the leaders of Jinnah’s Moslem 
League, tens of thousands of men from every corner of the 
province had been converging on Peshawar. Overflowing their 
trucks, in buses, cars, on special trains, chanting and waving 
their arms, they had spilled into the capital for the greatest 
popular demonstration in its history. 

Now, those tall, pale-skinned Pathans prepared to offer the 
Viceroy a welcome of an unexpected sort. Tired, their tempers 
rising in the heat and dirt, barely responsive to their leaders’ 
commands, they were working themselves towards a dangerous 
frenzy. The police had confined them in an enormous low- 
walled enclosure running between a railroad embankment 
and the sloping walls of Peshawar’s old Moghul fortress. 
Irritated and unruly, they threatened to mar the conciliatory 
tones of Operation Seduction with the discordant rattle of 

They were there because of the anomalous political situation 
of a province whose population was 93% Moslem, but which 
was governed by allies of the Congress Party. The Congress 
leader was a tribal chieftain named Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a 
bearded giant who resembled an Old Testament prophet and 
had devoted his life to carrying Gandhi’s message of love and 
passive resistance to Pathan tribesmen for whom the blood 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 145 

feud and the vendetta were an integral part of existence. This 
incongruous figure had won their support until, faithful to 
Gandhi, he’d opposed Jinnah’s call for an Islamic state. Since 
then, stirred by Jinnah’s agents, the population had turned 
against Ghaffar Khan and the government he’d installed in 
Peshawar. The huge, howling crowd greeting Mountbatten, his 
wife and 17-year-old daughter Pamela was meant to give final 
proof that it was the Moslem League and not the ‘Frontier 
Gandhi’ which now commanded the province’s support. The 
worried governor, Sir Olaf Caroe, bundled the party into a 
well-escorted car for the trip to his residence. The crowd, 
growing more unruly by the hour, threatened to burst out of 
the area in which the police had herded them and start a 
headlong rush on the governor’s residence. If they did, the 
vastly outnumbered military guarding the house would have 
no choice but to open fire. The resulting slaughter would be 
appalling. It would destroy Mountbatten, his hopes of finding 
a solution, and his Viceroyalty in a sickening bloodbath. 

The worried governor suggested there was only one way 
out, an idea condemned by his police and army commander 
as sheer madness. Mountbatten might expose himself to the 
crowds, hoping a glimpse of him would somehow mollify 

Mountbatten pondered a few moments. ‘All right,’ he said, 
‘I’ll take a chance and see them.’ To the despair of Caroe and 
his security officers, his wife Edwina insisted on coming with 
him. _ 

A few minutes later, a jeep deposited the viceregal couple 
and the governor at the foot of the railway embankment. On 
the other side of that precarious dyke, 100,000 hot, dirty, angry 
people were shouting their frustration. Mountbatten took his 
wife by the hand and clambered up the embankment. As they 
reached the top, they discovered themselves only fifteen feet 
away from the surging waves of a sea of turbans. The ground 
under their feet shook with the impact of the gigantic crowd 
stampeding forward in front of them. Before that terrifying 
ocean of human beings, incarnating in their shrieks and 


Freedom at Midnight 

gesticulations the enormity and the passions of the masses of 
India, the Mountbattens for an instant were dizzy. Whirling 
spirals of dust stirred by thousands of rushing feet clotted the 
air. The noise of the crowd was an almost tangible layer of air 
crushing down on them. It was a decisive instant in Operation 
Seduction, an instant when anything was possible. 

Watching their silhouettes as they stared uncertainly out at 
the crowd, Sir Olaf Caroe felt an apprehensive shudder. In 
that crowd were twenty, thirty, forty thousand rifles. Any mad- 
man, any bloodthirsty fool, could shoot the Mountbattens like 
ducks on a pond’. For the first seconds they stood there, Caroe 
sensed the crowd was in an ugly mood. ‘It’s going to go wrong, 5 
he thought for a fleeting instant. 

Mountbatten did not know what to do. He couldn’t articu- 
late a syllable of Pushtu, the crowd’s tongue. As he pondered, 
an unexpected phenomenon began to still the mob as if hypno- 
tized; stopping perhaps with its strange vibrations an assassin’s 
hand. For this entirely unplanned meeting with the Empire’s 
most renowned warriors, Mountbatten happened to be wear- 
ing the short-sleeved, loose-fitting bush jacket he had worn as 
Supreme Allied Commander in Burma. One aspect of it struck 
the crowd. It was its colour, green. Green was the colour of 
Islam, the blessed green of the Hadjis , the holy men who had 
made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Instinctively, those tens of 
thousands read in* that green uniform a gesture of solidarity 
with them, a subtle compliment to their great religion. 

His hand still clutching her but his eyes straight ahead, 
Mountbatten hissed to his wife: ‘Wave to them.’ Slowly, gra- 
ciously, the frail Edwina raised her arm to the crowd, with 
his. India’s fate seemed for an instant suspended on those 
hands climbing above the crowd’s head. A questioning silence 
had briefly drifted over the unruly crowd. Suddenly, as 
Edwina’s pale arm began to stroke the sky, a cry, then a roaring 
ocean of noise burst from the crowd. From tens of thousands 
of throats came an interminable, constantly repeated shout, a 
triumphant litany marking the successful passing of the most 
dangerous seconds of ‘Operation Seduction’. 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 147 

'Mountbatten Zindabad!' those embittered Pathan warriors 
screamed, 'Mountbatten Zindabad - Long Live Mountbatten!’ 

Forty-eight hours after his confrontation with the Pathans, 
Mountbatten and his wife landed in the Punjab. Sir Evan 
Jenkins immediately led the viceregal pair to a little village 25 
miles from Rawalpindi. There a shocked Mountbatten was 
able to verify the accuracy of the governor’s warning issued 
fourteen days earlier that his province was in flames and get 
his first, direct contact with the horrors sweeping India. 

The young naval captain who had seen most of his shipmates 
die in the wreck of his destroyer off Crete, the leader who’d led 
millions through the savage jungle war in Burma, was over- 
whelmed by the spectacle in that little hamlet of 3500 people, 
which had once been typical of India’s half million villages. 

For centuries, Kahuta’s dirt alleys had been shared in peace 
by 2000 Hindus and Sikhs and 1500 Moslems. That day, side 
by side in the village centre, the stone minaret of its mosque 
and the rounded dome of the Sikhs’ guru dwara were the 
only identifiable remnants of Kahuta left on the skyline of the 

Just before Mountbatten’s visit, a patrol of the British Nor- 
folk Regiment on a routine reconnaissance mission passed 
through the village. Kahuta’s citizens, as they had for genera- 
tions, were sleeping side by side in mutual confidence and 
tranquillity. By dawn, Kahuta had for all practical purposes 
ceased to exist and its Sikhs and Hindus were all dead or had 
fled in terror into the night. 

A Moslem horde had descended on the village like a wolf 
pack, setting fire to the houses in its Sikh and Hindu quarters 
with buckets of gasoline. In minutes, the area was engulfed 
in fire and entire families, screaming pitifully for help, were 
consumed by the flames. Those who escaped were caught, tied 
together, soaked with gasoline and burned alive like torches. 
Totally out of control, the fire swept into the Moslem quarter 
and completed the destruction of Kahuta. A few Hindu 
women, hauled from their beds to be raped and converted to 


Freedom at Midnight 

Islam, survived; others had broken away from their captors 
and hurled themselves back into the fire to perish with their 

‘Until I went to Kahuta,’ Mountbatten reported back to 
London, ‘I had not appreciated the magnitude of the horrors 
that are going on.' 

His confrontation with the crowd in Peshawar, the atrocious 
spectacle of one devastated Punjabi village, were the last proofs 
Mountbatten needed. The judgment he’d made after ten days 
of meetings in his air-conditioned New Delhi study was sound. 
Speed was the one overwhelming imperative if India was to 
be saved. If he did not move immediately, India was going to 
collapse and the British Raj and his Viceroyalty would collapse 
in disarray along with her. And if speed was essential, then 
there was only one way out of the impasse, the solution from 
which he personally recoiled, but which India’s political situ- 
ation dictated - partition. 


The last* painful phase in the pilgrimage of Mahatma Gandhi 
began on the evening of 1 May 1947, in the same spare hut in 
New Delhi’s sweepers’ colony in which a fortnight before he 
had unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to accept his plan to 
hold India together. Cross-legged on the floor, a water-soaked 
towel plastered once again to his bald head, Gandhi followed 
with sorrow the debate of the men around him, the high 
command of the Congress Party. The final parting of the ways 
between Gandhi and those men, foreshadowed in their earlier 
meeting, had been reached. All Gandhi’s long years in jail, his 
painful fasts, his hartals and his boycotts, had been paving 
stones on the road to this meeting. He had changed the face 
of India and enunciated one of the original philosophies of 
his century to bring his countrymen to independence through 
non-violence; and now his sublime triumph threatened to 
become a terrible tragedy. His followers, their tempers worn, 
their patience exhausted, were ready to accept the division of 
India as the last, inescapable step to independence. 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 149 

Gandhi did not oppose partition simply out of some mysti- 
cal devotion to Indian unity. His years in the villages of India 
had given him an intuitive feeling for the soul of his country. 
Partition, that intuition told him, was not going, to be the 
‘surgical operation’ Jinnah had promised Mountbatten. It 
would be a sickening slaughter that would turn friend on 
friend, neighbour on neighbour, stranger on stranger, in thou- 
sands of those villages he knew so well. Their blood would be 
shed to achieve an abhorrent, useless end, the division of the 
sub-continent into two antagonistic parts condemned to gnaw 
at each other’s entrails. Generations of Indians for decades to 
come, Gandhi believed, would pay the price of the error they 
were preparing to commit. 

Gandhi’s tragedy was that he had that evening no real 
alternative to propose beyond his instinct, the instinct those 
men had so often followed before. This night, however, he 
was no longer a prophet. ‘They call me a Mahatma,’ he bitterly 
told a friend later, ‘but I tell you I am not even treated by 
them as a sweeper.’ 

Like Mountbatten, Nehru, Patel and the others all felt a 
catastrophe menaced India and partition, however painful it 
might be, was the only way to save the country. Gandhi 
believed with all his heart and soul that they were wrong. Even 
if they were right, he would have preferred chaos to partition. 

Jinnah, he told his followers, will never get Pakistan unless 
the British give it to him. The British would never do that in 
the face of the Congress majority’s unyielding opposition. They 
had a veto over any action Mountbatten proposed. Tell the 
British to go, he begged, no matter what the consequences of 
their departure might be. Tell them to leave India ‘to God, to 
chaos, to anarchy, if you wish, but leave’. 

‘We will go through fire,’ he believed, ‘but the fire will purify 

His was a voice crying in the wilderness. Even his two hand- 
picked deputies were not ready to heed one last time the voice 
that had so often given utterance to their joint aspirations. 

Patel had been prepared to concede partition even before 


Freedom at Midnight 

Mountbatten’s arrival. He was ageing, he’d suffered two heart 
attacks, and he wanted to get on with it, to end these ceaseless 
debates and get down to the task of building an independent 
India. Give Jinnah his state, he argued, it wouldn’t survive 
anyway. In five years, the Moslem League would be knocking 
at their door begging for India’s reunification. 

Nehru was a torn and anguished man, caught between his 
deep love for Gandhi and his new admiration and friendship 
for the Mountbattens. Gandhi spoke to his heart, Mountbatten 
to his mind. Instinctively, Nehru detested partition, yet his 
rational spirit told him it was the only answer. Since reaching 
his own conclusion that there was no other choice, Mount- 
batten had been employing all the charm and persuasiveness 
of Operation Seduction to bring Nehru to his viewpoint. One 
argument was vital. With Jinnah gone, Hindu India could have 
the strong central government Nehru would need if he was 
going to build the socialist state of his dreams. Ultimately, he 
too stood out against the man he’d followed so long. 

With these two voices in favour, the rest of the high com- 
mand quickly fell into line. Nehru was authorized to inform 
the Viceroy that, while Congress remained ‘passionately 
attached to the idea of a United India’, it would accept partition 
provided the two great provinces of Punjab and Bengal were 
divided. The man who had led them to their triumph was left 
alone with his tarnished victory and his broken dream. 

At 18.00 the following day, 2 May, exactly 40 days after it had 
landed in New Delhi, the viceregal York MW 102 took off 
from Palam airport for London. This time, its most important 
passenger was Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff Lord Ismay and 
he carried with him for submission to His Majesty’s Govern- 
ment a plan for the division of India. 

All Mountbatten’s hopes had foundered, finally, on the rock 
of Jinnah’s intransigence. He was ignorant of the one factor 
in the equation which might have changed things, Jinnah’s 
illness. For the rest of his life, Mountbatten would look back on 
his failure to move Jinnah as the single great disappointment of 

An Old Man and his Shattered Dream 151 

his career. His personal anguish at the prospect of going down 
in history as the man who divided India could be measured 
by a document flying back to London with Ismay, Mount- 
batten’s fifth personal report to the Attlee government. 

Partition, Mountbatten wrote, ‘is sheer madness,’ and ‘no 
one would ever induce me to agree to it were it not for this 
fantastic communal madness that has seized everybody and 
leaves no other course open’. 

‘The responsibility for this mad decision,’ he wrote, must 
be placed ‘squarely on Indian shoulders in the eyes of the 
world, for one day they will bitterly regret the decision they 
are about to make.’ 


A Precious Little Place 


Simla, May 1947 

Louis Mountbatten had no need for air-conditioning now. 
The view from his study’s window alone was enough to cool 
him: the snow-tipped crests of the world’s highest mountain 
chain, the Himalayas, the glacial wall dividing India from Tibet 
and China. No longer did his eyes recoil at bleak landscapes 
withering in India’s remorseless heat. The vision before him 
now was one of unremitting green; emerald lawns, soaring 
stands of fir, delicate clumps of mountain fern. Exhausted by 
weeks of unceasing strain, Mountbatten had followed a tra- 
dition laid down by his predecessors. On Ismay’s departure 
for London, he had abandoned Delhi for the most bizarre 
product of the British Raj, a strangely anomalous, consum- 
mately English creation planted in the Himalayan foothills, 
the little town of Simla. 

Five months out of every year for over a century that minia- 
ture Sussex hamlet 7300 feet high tucked just below the roof 
of the world, had become a great imperial capital, the site from 
which the British ruled their Indian Empire and its associated 
satellites from the Red Sea to Burma. It was a precious little 
place, with its octagonal bandstand rimmed with blue and 
white striped pillars, its broad esplanades, immaculate gardens, 
the Tudor belfry of Christ Church Cathedral, its bells cast, in 
the muscular tradition of Victorian Christianity, from the brass 
of cannons captured during the Sikh wars. A thousand miles 
from the sea, served by one narrow-gauge railway, a gruelling 
journey by car, Simla poised disdainfully above the scorched 
and over-populated plains of India, cool, green and unmistak- 
ably English. 

A Precious Little Place 


Each year in mid-April when the warm weather arrived, the 
Viceroy’s departure for Simla in his white and gold viceregal 
train signalled that the mountain capital’s season had begun. 
The Raj followed: bodyguards, secretaries, ADCs, generals, 
ambassadors and their staffs, every major ICS functionary of 
India’s central administration. Behind came a cohort of tailors, 
hairdressers, boot and saddle makers, silversmiths by appoint- 
ment to H E the Viceroy, wine and spirit merchants, memsahibs 
with their mounds of luggage, their flocks of domestics and 
their turbulent progeny. Until 1903, the railroad line ended 42 
miles away at Kalka and there that whole incredible cohort 
transferred to two-horse tongas for the eight-hour trip up the 
hills to Simla. Baggage followed by bullock cart and the backs 
of men. Long lines of coolies bore upon their work-bent spines 
an interminable flow of cases full of potted shrimps, foie gras> 
sausages, Bordeaux, champagne to supply the banquets which 
gave Simla’s season an elegance unparalleled in India. 

The coolies were necessary because, in Simla, the clap of 
hooves and the bark of the internal combustion engine was 
replaced by the soft pit-pat of human feet. An old tradition 
insisted that only three carriages, and later cars, were allowed 
in Simla, those of the Viceroy, the Commander-in-Chief of 
the Indian Army and the Governor of the Punjab. God, said 
a local joke, had applied for permission to have a car in Simla 
but was refused. Simla’s standard conveyance until the British 
left India was the rickshaw. They were good-sized, recalled 
one owner, ‘not those wretched little things that stick in your 
ribs’, and four men were required to pull each one up and 
down Simla’s precipitous slopes.. A fifth ran alongside to relieve 
the others. 

By tradition they did not wear shoes. Their employers com- 
pensated them, however, by the sumptuousness of their uni- 
forms. Families competed to have the most elegantly 
turned-out coolies. The Viceroy’s had the exclusive right to 
scarlet. One Scot put his in kilts. Another resident had two 
sets of uniforms for his, one for daytime, one for the evening. 
All usually wore on the breast of their uniforms the cyphers 


Freedom at Midnight 

or the coat of arms of the family in whose service they were 
expending their lungs. Almost without exception those coolies 
of Simla suffered from tuberculosis. 

The feasts towards which they bore their employers were 
brilliant, and the most brilliant of all took place in Viceregal 
Lodge. The rickshaws of the town's aristocracy bore red 
rosettes which entitled them to use the Viceroy’s private entry 
for grand balls and garden parties. The others bore white 
rosettes and used the public entrance. Whatever the colour of 
their rosettes, the rickshaw’s occupants could feel sure of one 
thing: once inside, with the exception of a maharaja or two, 
they would not have to rub shoulders with any citizens of the 
country they governed. 

‘You simply cannot imagine the brilliance of a ball at Vice- 
regal Lodge in the old days,’ mused one woman, ‘the long 
lines of the rickshaws in the night moving slowly up the hill, 
each with its little oil lamp glittering in the darkness and the 
only sound the soft patter of hundreds of bare feet.’ 

The other centre of Simla’s social life was Cecil’s Hotel, a 
hostelry whose hospitality was as lavish as any in the world. 
Each evening at 8.15 a turbaned butler marched down its car- 
peted corridors tolling a dinner gong as though it were a 
P & O steamer. The guests, in black tie and evening dresses, 
came down to dine at tables covered with Irish linen, Mappin 
and Webb silverware, Doulton porcelain and German 
Bohemian crystal, glasses for champagne, whisky, wine, port 
and water at each place. 

Simla’s heart was the Mall, a broad avenue running from 
one end of the ridge in which the town was set to the other, 
an exclusively English presence of tea shops, banks and stores, 
its surface as cleanly scrubbed as the Viceroy’s porcelain. At 
one end stood Christ Church Cathedral into which the Com- 
mander-in-Chief, in full uniform, led the colony every Sunday, 
there to listen to ‘a proper choir - all English voices’. JJntil 
World War One, Indians were not allowed to walk on the 

That prohibition had represented the essence of Simla. The 


A Precious Little Place 

annual move to its heights was more than just a seasonal 
escape from the heat. It was a subtle reaffirmation of Britain’s 
racial superiority, of the solidity of those virtues which set the 
British apart from the pullulating brown millions sweltering 
at their feet on the parched reaches of India. 

Much of that old Simla was already gone by the time Louis 
Mountbatten arrived in early May 1947* Now an Indian could 
even walk down the Mall — providing he was not wearing the 

national dress of his country/ 

Mountbatten may have been exhausted by his intensive 
negotiations, but he was also in an exuberant, confident mood. 
He had, after all, achieved in six weeks what his predecessors 
had failed to accomplish in years. He had delivered to 10 
Downing Street a plan that offered Britain an honourable exit 
from India and to the Indians a solution, however painful, to 
their impasse. 

Because he had been able to wring plenipotentiary powers 
out of Attlee before leaving London, he had not been obliged 
to secure the formal agreement of the Indian leaders to his 
plan before sending it back to England. He had only to assure 
the Attlee government that they would accept it when it was 
put before them. 

His plan was a distillation of what Mountbatten had learned 

* Simla changed with an easily foreseen rapidity after independence. The 
Indians, because of its connotations, abandoned it as their summer capital. 
‘The only thing which remains of the old Simla,’ M. S. Oberoi, owner of 
Cecil’s Hotel and chairman of Oberoi’s Hotels Ltd, lamented in 1973, is the 
climate.’ One English survivor of Simla’s grand days still resided in the town, 
an 87-year-old widow named Mrs Henry Penn Montague. She lived alone 
in the dark and melancholy Victorian mansion of her maternal uncle, the 
Finance Member of Lord Curzon’s Viceregal Council, surrounded by six 
dogs, five cats, four servants and a house full of memorabilia. Mrs Penn 
Montague, who spoke six languages, rose every day at four in the afternoon. 
Breakfast was followed by high tea at sunset after which Mrs Montague 
retired to a room she had equipped with a Zenith Transoceanic radio. There, 
while Simla slept, Mrs Penn Montague listened to her radio until dawn, 
eavesdropping on the world. At 4.00 a.m., hers was perhaps the only light 
burning between Simla and Tibet. 


Freedom at Midnight 

in the privacy of his study. It represented his careful evaluation, 
based on his knowledge of each leader’s intimate sentiments 
and convictions, of what they would accept when the chips 
were down. So confident was he of his judgment that just 
before leaving for Simla he had formally announced his inten- 
tion to present it to them on his return on 17 May. 

Simla s brisk climate, its Olympian calm, however, inspired 
reflection, and uncharacteristic doubts began to gnaw at the 
Viceroy. Since the plan had reached London, he had been 
inundated by a stream of cables from the Attlee government 
proposing textual modifications which, while they would not 
alter its substance, would change its tone. 

More serious, however, was the real concern which underlay 
his growing apprehension. If the implications in the plan he 
had sent to London were folly realized, it was not into two 
independent nations that the great Indian sub-continent would 
be divided, but three. 

Mountbatten had inserted in the plan a clause which would 
allow an Indian province to become independent if a majority 
of both its communities wished to. That clause was intended 
to provide that the sixty-five million Hindus and Moslems of 
Bengal could join into one viable country with the great seaport 
of Calcutta as their capital. 

The idea had been placed before Mountbatten by Calcutta’s 
Moslem leader, Shaheed Suhrawardy, a nightclub- and cham- 
pagne-loving politician who, ten months earlier, had unleashed 
the terrors of Direct Action Day on his city. The Viceroy liked 
it. Contrasted to Jinnah’s aberrant, two-headed state, it seemed 
an entity likely to endure. To his surprise, he had discovered 
Bengal’s Congress Hindu leaders intrigued by the project. He 
had quietly encouraged their interest. He had even discovered 
Jmnah would not oppose the idea. He had not, however, 
exposed it to Nehru and Patel, and it was this oversight that 
disturbed him now. Would they, in fact, accept a plan that 
might cost them the great port of Calcutta with its belt of 
textile mills owned by the industrialists who provided their 
party’s principal financial support? If they didn’t, Mount- 

A Precious Little Place 

15 7 

batten, after all the assurances he’d given London, was going 
to look a bloody fool in the eyes of India, Britain and the 

A sudden inspiration struck him. He would reassure himself 
by private discussions with the Indian leader, whom, to the 
distress of his staff, he’d invited to spend a holiday with him 
in Simla. More than ever, Mountbatten saw his relationship 
with the gracious and elegant Jawaharlal Nehru as the prime 
support of his own policies in India, and the prime hope of 
a warm understanding between Britain and her old Indian 
Empire in the years to come. 

His wife’s friendship with the Indian Prime Minister had 
grown too. Women like Edwina Mountbatten were rare in the 
world and rarer still in the India of 1947. No one had been 
better able to draw Nehru from his shell when doubts and 
depression gripped him than the attractive aristocrat who radi- 
ated so much compassion, intelligence and warmth. Often, 
over tea, a stroll in the Moghul Gardens, or a swim in the 
viceregal pool, she had been able to charm Nehru out of his 
gloom, redress a situation and subtly encourage her husband’s 

Determined to follow his instinct, Mountbatten called the 
members of his staff to his study and explained his idea to 
them. They were horrified. To show the plan to Nehru without 
exposing it to Jinnah would be a complete breach of faith 
with the Moslem leader, they pointed out. If he discovered it, 
Mountbatten’s whole position would be destroyed. 

For a long time, Mountbatten sat silently drumming the 
tabletop with his fingertips. 

‘I’m sorry,’ he finally announced. ‘Your arguments are abso- 
lutely sound. But I have a hunch that I must show it to Nehru, 
and I’m going to follow my hunch.’* 

* It was not the first time Mountbatten had gone against the combined 
advice of his staff. In February 1941, leading four of his flotilla of K-class 
destroyers through the Bay of Biscay en route to Gibraltar, he received a flash 
from the First Sea Lord informing him that the German pocket battleships 
Schamhorst and Gneisenau had just been sighted steering for Saint-Nazaire, 

i 5 8 

Freedom at Midnight 

That night, Mountbatten invited Nehru to his study for a 
glass of port. Casually, he passed the Congress leader a copy 
of the plan as it had been amended by London, asking him 
to take it to his bedroom and read it. Then, perhaps, Nehru 
might let him know informally what reception it was likely to 
get from Congress. Flattered and happy, Nehru agreed. 

A few hours later, while Mountbatten devoted himself to 
his regular evening relaxation, constructing his family’s genea- 
logical table, Jawaharlal Nehru began to scrutinize the text 
designed to chart his country s future. He was horrified by 
what he read. The vision of the India that emerged from the 
plan s pages was a nightmare, an India divided, not into two 
parts, but fragmented into a dozen pieces. The door Mount- 
batten had left open for Bengal would become, Nehru foresaw, 
a wound through which the best blood of India would pour. 
He saw India deprived of its lungs, the port of Calcutta along 
with its mills, factories, steel works; Kashmir, his beloved Kash- 
mir, an independent state ruled by a despot he despised; 
Hyderabad become an enormous, indigestible Moslem body 
planted in the belly of India; half a dozen other princely states 
clamouring to go off on their own. The plan, he believed, 
would exacerbate all India’s fissiparous tendencies - dialect, 
culture, race - to the point at which the sub-continent would 
risk exploding into a mosaic of weak, hostile states. The British 
had run India for three centuries with the byword ‘Divide and 
Rule’. They proposed to leave it on a new one; ‘Fragment and 

and ordering him to proceed to intercept them. It was sunset. Mountbatten 
ordered his flotilla to steer a course for Brest. His staff rushed to the bridge 
protesting that they’d been ordered to make for Saint-Nazaire, not Brest. 
No, Mountbatten said, they’d been ordered to intercept the two German 
ships and he had a hunch. If he were the Admiral commanding those two 
ships, he said, he would not be steering on his true course at sunset when 
the last reconnaissance planes of the day were out. The fact they were spotted 
heading for Saint-Nazaire meant their real destination was Brest. They would 
stay on the course he’d assigned them. Mountbatten’s hunch turned out to 
be correct. The two ships were indeed heading for Brest. Unfortunately, 
although his destroyers raced for Brest at 32 knots, the Germans’ headstart 
was too great. They reached the French port safely. 


A Precious Little Place 

Quit’. White-faced, shaking with rage, Nehru stalked into the 
bedroom of his confidant Krishna Menon who’d accompanied 
him to Simla. With a furious gesture, he hurled the plan on 
to his bed. 

‘It's all over!' he shouted. 

Mountbatten got his first intimation of his friend's violent 
reaction in a letter early the following morning. For the confi- 
dent Viceroy, it was 'a bombshell’. As he read it, the whole 
structure he had so carefully erected during the past six weeks 
came tumbling down like a house of cards. The impression 
his plan left, Nehru wrote, was one of ‘fragmentation and 
conflict and disorder’. It frightened him and was certain to be 
‘resented and bitterly disliked by the Congress Party’. 

Reading Nehru’s words, the poised, self-assured Viceroy 
who’d proudly announced to the world that he was going to 
present a solution to India’s dilemma in ten days time, sud- 
denly realized he had no solution at all. The plan the British 
Cabinet was discussing that very day, the plan he’d assured 
Attlee would win Indian acceptance, would never get past the 
one element in India that had to accept it, the Congress Party. 

Mountbatten’s critics might accuse him of over-confidence, 
but he was not a man to brood over setbacks. Instead of 
desponding at Nehru’s reaction, Mountbatten congratulated 
himself on showing him the plan, and set out to repair the 
damage. Fortunately for the Viceroy, his friendship with Nehru 
would survive the shock. At Mountbatten s behest, Nehru 
agreed to stay on another night to give him time to draff a 
revised plan which might be acceptable to Congress. It would 
have to close the loopholes that had so distressed Nehru. The 
new plan would offer India’s provinces and princes only one 
choice - India or Pakistan. 

The dream of an independent Bengal was gone. Mount- 
batten remained convinced, however, that Jinnah s two-headed 
state could not survive. Some time later, he predicted to the 
man who would succeed him in Viceroy’s House, C. R. Raja- 
gopalachari, that East Bengal would be out of Pakistan in a 

*6° Freedom at Midnight 

quarter of a century. The Bangladesh war of 1971 was to con- 
firm his prediction with just one year to spare. 

To redraft his plan, Mountbatten called into his study the 
highest ranking Indian in his viceregal establishment. It was a 
supreme irony that at that critical juncture the Indian to whom 
Mountbatten turned had not even entered that vaunted 
administrative elite, the Indian Civil Service. No degree from 
Oxford or Cambridge graced his office walls. No family ties 
had hastened his rise. V. P. Menon was an incongruous oddity 
in the rarified air of Viceroy’s House, a self-made man. 

Eldest son in a family of twelve, Menon had quit school at 
13 to work successively as a construction worker, coal miner, 
factory hand, stoker on the Southern Indian Railways, unsuc- 
cessful cotton broker and schoolteacher. Finally, having taught 
himself to type with two fingers, he talked his way into a job 
as a clerk in the Indian administration in Simla in 1929.* 

What followed was probably the most meteoric rise in that 
administration s history. By 1947, it had carried Menon to one 
of the most senior posts on the Viceroy’s staff, where he had 
quickly won Mountbatten’s confidence and later affection. 

Mountbatten informed Menon that, by that evening, he 
would have to redraft the charter that would give India her 
independence. Its essential option, partition, had to remain 
and it must above all continue to place the responsibility for 
making the choice upon the Indians themselves through the 
vote of their provincial assemblies. 

Menon finished his task in accordance with Mountbatten’s 
instructions. Between lunch and dinner, he had performed a 

* When Menon arrived in Delhi en route to Simla, he discovered every 
rupee he owned had been stolen. Despairing, he Anally approached an elderly, 
distinguished Sikh, explained his plight and asked for a loan of 15 rupees, to 
cover his fare to Simla. The Sikh gave him the money. When Menon asked 
for his address so he could pay it back, the Sikh said: ‘No, until the day you 
die, you will always give that sum to any honest man who asks your help.’ 
Six weeks before his death, his daughter recalls, a beggar came to the family 
home in Bangalore. Menon sent his daughter for his wallet, took out fifteen 
rupees, and gave it to the man. He was still repaying his debt. 

A Precious Little Place 


tour deforce . The man who had begun his career as a two-finger 
typist culminated it by redrafting, in barely six hours on an 
office porch looking out on the Himalayas, a plan which was 
going to re-order the sub-continent and alter the map of the 


Stricken with a violent attack of appendicitis, Manu’s slender 
figure shook under the blankets her great-uncle had heaped 
over her. Her eyes were dulled by a racking fever. Her body 
was hunched into a foetal position in an instinctive effort to 
minimize the terrible pain in her abdomen. Silent and worried, 
Gandhi hovered at her side. 

Once again he faced a challenge to his faith. Gandhi had had 
a deep-rooted belief in nature cures. He denounced modern 
medicine for its emphasis on the body’s physical aspects at the 
expense of the spirit, for counselling pills and drugs when 
what was needed was restraint and self-discipline, for being 
too concerned with money. The fields of India, he maintained, 
were filled with natural, medicinal herbs placed there by God 
to cure the nation’s ills. To Gandhi, nature cure was an exten- 
sion of his non-violent philosophy. It was for that reason he 
had refused to allow his wife’s body to be subjected to the 
violence of a hypodermic needle as she lay dying in the Aga 
Khan’s palace. 

When Manu had begun to complain of a pain in her abdo- 
men, Gandhi prescribed the treatment nature cure dictated: 
mudpacks, a strict diet and enemas. 

Her condition worsened. Now, 36 hours later, a crisis was 
at hand. For all his faith in nature cures, Gandhi had also 
studied medicine at great length. He knew very well what 
malady was gripping his great-niece. 

As it had been in Noakhali, her faith in him was total. She 
had confided herself entirely to his hands, ready to do whatever 
he wanted. Gandhi was in agony. His nature treatment had 
failed. To him its failure, Manu’s illness, were manifestations 
of their spiritual imperfections. But, as he would later note. 


Freedom at Midnight 

he did not ‘have the courage to let a girl entrusted to me die 
like that*. He broke down and admitted defeat. ‘With the 
utmost reluctance,’ the man who had denied his dying wife 
the violent therapy of a hypodermic needle decided to allow 
his dying great-niece the violence of the surgeon’s scalpel. 
Manu was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appen- 

As she slipped under the anaesthetic, Gandhi gently placed 
his palm on her brow. ‘Hold on to Ramanama,’ he told her, 
‘and all will be well.’ 

Hours later, one of her doctors, shocked at Gandhi’s haggard 
regard, took the Mahatma aside. Rest, he begged Gandhi, ease 
the strain on his being. ‘The people need your services more 
than ever.’ 

Gandhi looked at him with disconsolate eyes. ‘Neither the 
people nor those in power have any use for me,’ he sadly 
replied. ‘My only wish is to die in harness, taking the name 
of God with my last breath.’ 


Palaces and Tigers, Elephants and Jewels 


New Delhi , May 1947 

The turbaned servant advanced in reverent silence towards the 
mammoth figure of his master. Caressing with his bare feet 
the tiger, panther and antelope skins that littered his long 
march across the room, he bore to his employer’s bedside a 
silver tray ordered in London in 1921 to mark the tour of India 
of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. The vermeil teapot 
set upon it gave off the delicious fragrance of the special blend 
simmering inside, a mixture flown twice a month from London 
along with the biscuits accompanying it, by the firm of Fort- 
num and Mason. On the walls of the bedroom, in its shadowy 
corners, were the stuffed animal heads and a host of silver 
trophies garnered by its occupant with his longbore rifle, his 
polo stick or his cricket bat, all of which he wielded with a 
gentleman’s skill. 

The servant set the tray on a bedside table and bent down 
to his master. The man was a Sikh and his black beard, tightly 
rolled in a silk net, circled his sleeping face like an ebony 

‘Bed tea,’ the servant whispered with obsequious softness. 

The six-foot-four-inch figure below him stretched with 
a long and feline gesture. As he swung to his feet, another 
servant emerged from the shadows to cover his muscular 
shoulders with a silk robe. Shaking the sleep from his eyes, 
His Most Gracious Highness Yadavindrah Singh, the eighth 
Maharaja of the Indian State of Patiala, gazed out on another 

Yadavindrah Singh presided over the most remarkable body 
in the world, an assembly unlike any other man had ever 


Freedom at Midnight 

spawned or was likely to spawn in the future. He was the 
Chancellor of the Chamber of Indian Princes. On this May 
morning, almost two years after the cyclone of Hiroshima and 
the end of a war that had shaken the world's foundations, 
the 565 maharajas, nawabs, rajas and rulers composing that 
chamber still reigned as absolute, hereditary sovereigns over 
one third of India’s land surface and a quarter of her popu- 
lation. They reflected the fact that under the British there had 
been two Indias, the India of its provinces, administered by 
the central government in Delhi, and the separate India of her 

The princes anachronistic situation dated from Britain’s 
haphazard conquest of India when rulers who received the 
English with open arms or proved worthy foes on the battle- 
field were allowed to remain on their thrones provided they 
acknowledged Britain as the paramount power. The system 
was formalized in a series of treaties between the individual 
rulers and the British crown. The princes had recognized the 
Paramountcy’ of the King Emperor as represented in New 
Delhi by the Viceroy and ceded to him control of their foreign 
affairs and defence. They received in return Britain’s guarantee 
of their continuing autonomy inside their states. 

Certain princes like the Nizam of Hyderabad or the Mah- 
araja of Kashmir ruled over states which rivalled in size or 
population the nations of Western Europe. Others like those 
in the Kathiawar peninsula near Bombay lived in stables and 
governed domains no larger than London’s Richmond Park. 
Their fraternity embraced the richest man in the world and 
princes so poor that their entire kingdom was a cow pasture. 
Over four hundred princes ruled states smaller than twenty 
square miles. A good number of them offered their subjects 
an administration far better than that the British provided. A 
few were petty despovs more concerned with squandering their 
state’s revenues to slake their own extravagant desires than 
with improving the lot of their peoples. 

Whatever their political proclivities, however, the future of 
India’s ruling princes, with their average of 11 titles, 5.8 wives. 


Palaces and Tigers , Elephants and Jewels 

12.6 children, 9.2 elephants, 2.8 private railway cars, 3.4 Rolls- 
Royces and 22.9 tigers killed, posed a grave problem in the 
spring of 1947. No solution to the Indian equation would work 
if it failed to deal with their peculiar situation. 

For Gandhi, Nehru and the Congress the answer was evi- 
dent. The princes’ reign should be terminated and their states 
merged into an independent India. That was hardly a solution 
designed to appeal to Yadavindrah Singh and men like him. 
His state of Patiala in the heart of the Punjab was one of the 
richest in India and he had an army the size of an infantry 
division, bulwarked by Centurion tanks, to defend it if 

An atmosphere of concern and tension hung about the 
Chancellor of the Chamber of Indian Princes as he sipped his 
tea. He knew something on this May morning that the Viceroy 
of India did not know. He knew that, 6000 miles from his 
Punjabi state, in London, a man was making a desperate plea 
so that his future and that of his fellow princes would not be 
that to which Nehru and the Socialists of Congress wished to 
condemn them. 


The man who was to make that plea was not a maharaja 
but an Englishman. He was in London without the Viceroy’s 
knowledge or approval. Sir Conrad Corfield was a missionary’s 
son, who represented one of the great strengths and at the 
same time great weaknesses of the British who had run India. 
Corfield had spent most of his career in the service of India’s 
princely states and as a result those states were his India. His 
judgment of what was good for India was what was good for 
her princes. He loathed their enemies, Nehru and Congress, 
with a fervour at least equal to theirs. 

Corfield was, in May 1947, the Viceroy’s Political Secretary, 
his deputy responsible for exercising the authority that the 
princes had ceded to the King Emperor. Absorbed since arriv- 
ing in Delhi by the task of finding a solution to the conflict 
between Congress and the Moslem League, Mountbatten had 


Freedom at Midnight 

had little time to wrestle with the problem of Corfield and the 
princes. That had not disturbed Corfield. Deeply suspicious 
of his superior’s ripening friendship with Nehru, Corfield had 
flown to London to secure his princes a better deal than he 
thought Mountbatten would be prepared to give them. 
Corfield was making his plea in a room rendered unique in 
deference to the princes of India. The octagonal London office 
of the Secretary of State for India, known since the days of 
John Morley as the ‘gilded cage’, could be entered by either 
of two doors opposite the secretary’s desk, exactly alike in 
every detail. Thus two maharajas of equal rank could enter 
the secretary’s presence at precisely the same instant, so that 
neither would suffer a loss of face or precedence. 

Corfield set his argument before the occupant of that office, 
the Earl of Listowel, with force and vigour. India’s princes 
had surrendered their powers to the British crown and only 
to the British crown, he argued. At the moment India be- 
came independent those powers should revert to them. They 
would then be free to work out whatever new arrangement 
they could with India or Pakistan, or if they chose, and it were 
practicable, they could become independent. Anything less 
would be a violation of the treaties that linked Britain to the 

Corfield’s interpretation was in the strict legal sense right. 
Its practical consequences, however, would be appalling to 
contemplate. If the implications in Corfield’s impassioned plea 
were realized, an independent India would be menaced with 
Balkanization on a scale even Nehru in Simla had not contem- 


It had once seemed to Rudyard Kipling that Providence had 
created the maharajas just to offer mankind a spectacle, a 
dazzling vision of marble palaces, tigers, elephants and jewels. 
Powerful or humble, rich or poor, theirs was an extraordinary 
breed, whose members had fuelled those legends of an India 
now on the brink of extinction. The accounts of their vices 


Palaces and Tigers y Elephants and Jewels 

and virtues, their extravagances and prodigalities, their follies 
and their eccentricities, had enriched folklore and entranced 
a world hungry for exotic dreams. Their day was ending, but 
when the maharajas of India were gone, the world would be 
a duller place. 

The kgend that surrounded India’s princes was the work of a 
relatively small number of their company, those rulers with 
the wealth, the time and the appetite to indulge their most 
imaginative fantasies. A series of consuming passions united 
those extravagant gentlemen and they pursued them with rare 
devotion. Hunting, cars, sport, their palaces and harems all 
figured among them, but most often jewels were a maharaja’s 
best friends. 

The Maharaja of Baroda practically worshipped gold and 
precious stones. His court tunic was of spun gold and only 
one family in his state was allowed to weave its threads. The 
fingernails of each member of the family were grown to extra- 
ordinary length, then cut and notched like the teeth of a comb 
so they could caress the gold threads into perpendicular per- 

His collection of historic diamonds included the Star of the 
South, the seventh biggest diamond in the world, and the 
diamond offered by Napoleon III to Eugenie. The most pre- 
cious bauble in his treasure chest was a collection of tapestries 
made entirely of pearls into which had been woven ornate 
designs of rubies and emeralds. 

The Maharaja of Bharatpur had an even more remarkable 
collection. His masterpieces w$re made of ivory. Each rep- 
resented years of labour for an entire family. Their work 
demanded an extraordinary exactitude, peeling down the ivory 
of elephants’ tusks. The largest topaz in the world gleamed 
like a Cyclopean eye from the turban of the Sikh Maharaja of 
Kapurtala, its apricot brilliance set off by a field of 3000 dia- 
monds and pearls. The fabulous treasure of the Maharaja of 
Jaipur was buried in a Rajasthan hillside, the site guarded 
from generation to generation by a particularly bellicose Rajput 


Freedom at Midnight 

tribe. Each Maharaja was allowed to visit the site once in his 
lifetime to select the stones which would embellish his reign. 
Among its marvels was a necklace composed of three tiers of 
rubies each the size of a pigeon’s egg and three enormous 
emeralds, the largest of which weighed 90 carats. 

Centrepiece of the great Sikh Maharaja of Patiala’s collection 
was a pearl necklace insured by Lloyds for one million dollars. 
The most intriguing item, however, was a diamond breastplate, 
its luminous surface composed of 1001 brilliantly matched 
blue-white diamonds. Until the turn of the century it had been 
the custom of the Maharaja of Patiala to appear once a year 
before his subjects naked except for that diamond breastplate, 
his organ in full and glorious erection. His performance was 
adjudged a kind of temporal manifestation of the Shivaling, the 
phallic representation of Lord Shiva’s organ. As the Maharaja 
walked about, his subjects gleefully applauded, their cheers 
acknowledging both the dimensions of the princely organ and 
the fact that it was supposed to be radiating magic powers to 
drive evil spirits from the land. 

An early Maharaja of Mysore was informed by a Chinese 
sage that the most efficacious aphrodisiacs in the world were 
made of crushed diamonds. That unfortunate discovery led to 
the rapid impoverishment of the state treasury as hundreds of 
precious stones were ground to dust in the princely mills. The 
dancing girls, whom the resulting potions were meant, in a 
sense, to benefit, were paraded through the state on elephants 
whose trunks were studded with rubies and whose ears were 
decorated with elephant ear-rings composed of the prince’s 
surviving diamonds. 

The Maharaja of Baroda went about on an elephant even 
more gaudily arrayed. The animal was a 100-year-old monster 
whose great tusks had skewered twenty rivals in as many com- 
bats. All his equipment was in gold: the howdah in which the 
prince rode, his harness, the great saddle-cloth, or shabrack , 
covering his back. Like pendants, ten gold chains hung from 
each of the pachyderm’s ears. Each chain was worth £25,000 
and each represented one of his victories. 


Palaces and Tigers, Elephants and Jewels 

In both practice and folklore, the elephant had been for 
generations the princes’ preferred means of locomotion. 
Symbols of the cosmic order, born from the hand of Rama, 
they were in Hindu mythology the pillars of the universe, 
the supports of the sky and the clouds. Once a year, Mysore 
prostrated himself in veneration before the largest bull 
elephant in his herd, thus rekindling his alliance with nature’s 

A prince’s standing might be measured in the number, the 
age and the size of the animals filling his elephant stables. Not 
probably since Hannibal had marched across the Alps had the 
world seen a collection of elephants to rival those put on 
display once a year in Mysore for the Hindu festival of the 
Dassorah. One thousand animals draped in elaborately woven 
blankets of flowers, their foreheads studded with jewels and 
gold, paraded through the streets of the city. To the strongest 
bull elephant went the honour of carrying the throne of the 
Maharaja, a pedestal of massive gold draped in gold-brocaded 
velvet and surmounted by an umbrella, the symbol of princely 
power. Behind that animal came two more decorated in com- 
parable splendour and bearing empty howdahs. As they came 
into sight, a respectful silence settled upon the crowds along 
their path. These empty howdahs were supposed to contain 
the spirits of the Maharaja’s forebears. 

In Baroda, the princely fetes were inevitably highlighted by 
elephant fights. Their combats were terrifying spectacles. Two 
enormous bull elephants driven mad with fury by lances thrust 
into their flanks like a picador’s jab at a fighting bull were 
unleashed on each other. Shaking the ground with their enor- 
mous weight and the sky with their frightened trumpetings, 
they fought until one of them was killed. 

The Raja of Dhenkanal, a state in eastern India, provided 
thousands of guests each year with an opportunity to witness 
an equally impressive but less bloody exhibition by his ele- 
phants, the public copulation of two of the most select denizens 
of his stables. 

A Maharaja of Gwalior decided before the turn of the 


Freedom at Midnight 

century to ornament his palace with a chandelier carefully 
calculated to surpass in dimension the largest chandelier in 
Buckingham Palace. Once he’d ordered it in Venice, however, 
someone pointed out to the Maharaja that the roof of his 
palace might not support its weight. He resolved the problem 
by having his heaviest pachyderm hoisted to the palace roof 
with a specially constructed crane. When the roof failed to 
collapse under the animal’s weight, the Maharaja announced 
— correctly, it would turn out — that it would support his new 

The coming of the motor car inevitably confined the royal 
elephants to ceremonial, rather than functional tasks. The first 
automobile imported into India in 1892, a French-made De 
Dion Bouton, was destined for the garage of the Maharaja of 
Patiala. Its pride of place was recorded for posterity by the 
number on its licence plate - ‘O’. The Nizam of Hyderabad 
acquired his automobiles with a technique worthy of his 
legendary reputation for economy. Whenever his royal eyes 
fell on an interesting car inside the walls of his capital, he sent 
word to its owner that His Exalted Highness would be pleased 
to receive it as a gift. By i947> the Nizam’s garage overflowed 
with hundreds of cars he never used. 

Inevitably, the favoured automotive plaything of India’s 
princes was the Rolls-Royce. They imported them in all forms 
and sizes, limousines, coupes, station wagons and even trucks. 
The Maharaja of Patiala’s tiny Dion was eventually dwarfed 
in his garages by his mechanical elephants, twenty-seven enor- 
mous Rolls. The most exotic Rolls in India was a silver-plated 
convertible belonging to the Maharaja of Bharatpur. Rumour 
had it that mysterious, sexually stimulating waves emanated 
from its silver frame, and the most gracious gesture the Maha- 
raja could accomplish was to loan it to a princely colleague 
for his wedding. Bharatpur had also ordered a Rolls done up 
as a shooting brake for his hunts. One day in 1921, he took 
the Prince of Wales and his young ADC, Lord Louis Mount- 
batten, out in it after black buck. ‘The car,’ the future Viceroy 
of India noted in his diary that night, ‘went over wild, open 


Palaces and Tigers , Elephants and Jewels 

country, smashing through holes and over boulders, heaving 
and rocking like a boat at sea.’ 

The most extraordinary princely vehicle in India, however, 
was a Lancaster styled to the bizarre design of the Maharaja 
of Alwar. It was gold-plated inside and out. The chauffeur, 
manipulating a steering wheel in sculptured ivory, reposed on 
gold-brocaded cushion. Behind him, the body of the car was 
a perfectly reproduced replica of the coronation coach of the 
kings of England. By some mechanical miracle its engine was 
still able to hurl that weighty vehicle along the road at 70 mph. 

With all the revenue, duties and taxes amassed in their states 
at their disposal, the princes of India were uniquely equipped 
to indulge their personal eccentricities. 

The passion of the Maharaja of Gwalior, who ruled over 
one of the best run states in India, was electric trains. Even in 
his wildest pre-Christmas fantasies, a young boy could not 
conjure up an electric train set to rival the Maharaja’s. It was 
laid out over 250 feet of solid silver rails set on a mammoth 
iron table at the centre of the palace banquet hall. Special 
tunnels cut in the palace walls prolonged the tracks into the 
royal kitchen. The Maharaja’s guests were placed around the 
table and the ruler sat at its head, presiding over a mammoth 
control panel that bristled with levers, accelerators, switches 
and alarm signals. These controlled the trains that delivered 
dinner to the prince’s guests. By manipulating his control 
panel, the prince could pass the vegetables, send the potatoes 
shuttling through the banquet hall, or order an express to 
the kitchens for a second helping for a hungry guest. He 
could also, with the flick of a switch, deprive a guest of his 
dessert by sending the dessert trains speeding past his waiting 

One evening, in the midst of a formal banquet in honour 
of the Viceroy, the prince’s control panel short-circuited. 
While their Excellencies looked on aghast, his electric trains 
ran amok, racing from one end of the banquet hall to the 
other, indifferently sloshing gravy, roast beef and a puree, of 

!72 Freedom at Midnight 

peas over the Maharaja’s guests. It was a catastrophe without 
parallel in the annals of the railway. 

Dogs were the peculiar passion of the Maharaja of Junagadh, 
a principality north of Bombay. His favourite pets were 
assigned to apartments equipped with telephones, electricity 
and domestic servants, habitations of a style and comfort vastly 
superior to that of all but a tiny handful of his subjects. They 
were borne off to marble mausoleums in a canine graveyard 
to the strains of Chopin’s funeral march. 

He marked the ‘wedding’ of his favourite bitch Roshana to 
a Labrador named Bobby with a ceremony so grandiose that 
he invited every prince, celebrity and dignitary in India, includ- 
ing the Viceroy, to attend. To his chagrin, the Viceroy declined. 
Still, 150,000 people crowded the route of the nuptial cortege 
which was led by the prince’s bodyguard and the royal ele- 
phants in full regalia. After the parade, the Maharaja offered 
a lavish banquet in the canine couple’s honour before they 
were led off to their beautifully appointed bridal suite. Those 
proceedings cost the Maharaja £60,000, a sum which could 
have financed the basic human needs of 12,000 of his 620,000 
impoverished subjects for an entire year. 

The palaces of India’s great maharajas were monuments which 
rivalled the Taj Mahal in size and opulence, although not 
necessarily taste. Mysore’s 6oo-room palace surpassed the 
dimensions of Viceroy’s House itself. Twenty of those rooms 
were devoted exclusively to housing the collection of tigers, 
panthers, elephants and bisons killed by three generations of 
princes in the jungles of the state. At night, with its roofs and 
windows outlined by thousands of light bulbs, it looked like 
some monstrous ocean liner decked out for a gala, landlocked 
by error in the middle of India. Nine hundred and fifty-three 
windows, each set in its hand-carved marble frame, covered 
one facade of Jaipur’s marble Palace of the Wind. Udaipur’s 
white marble palace rose ghost-like from the mists of a shim- 
mering lake. 

Having decided during a visit to the Palace of Versailles that 


Palaces and Tigers, Elephants and Jewels 

he had been Louis XIV in an earlier incarnation, the Maharaja 
of Kapurtala determined to reproduce the glories of the Sun 
King in his tiny state. Importing a horde of French architects 
and decorators, he built himself a replica of Versailles at the 
foot of the Himalayas. He filled it with Sevres vases, Gobelin 
tapestries, French antiques, proclaimed French the language 
of his court, and dolled up his turbaned Sikh retainers in the 
powdered wigs, silk waistcoats, knickers and silver-buckled 
slippers of the Sun King s courtiers. 

The thrones in some of those palaces were the most elabor- 
ate and luxurious objects ever designed as receptacles for 
human posteriors. Mysore’s was made from a ton of solid 
gold, reached by nine steps equally in gold, representing the 
nine steps of the God Vishnu in his ascent to truth. Orissa s 
throne was an enormous bed. He had bought it from an 
antique dealer in London and studded it with an appropriate 
number of jewels. Its particular charm stemmed from the fact 
it was an exact copy of Queen Victoria s wedding bed. 

The throne of the Nawab of Rampur was placed in a hall 
the size of a cathedral. The columns which surrounded the 
podium on which it reposed were white marble representations 
of nude women. The originality of his throne owed its inspi- 
ration to another idea provided by the Sun King. Cut into the 
rich gold brocade of its cushion was a hole providing direct 
access to a chamber pot. With an appropriately princely rum- 
ble, the ruler was thus able to relieve his royal person without 
interrupting the flow of the affairs of state. 

Time often hung heavy on the hands of the indolent gentlemen 
who inhabited those palaces. To fill it, they ddVoted themselves 
to two pastimes, sex and sport. Whether he was Flindu or 
Moslem, the harem was an integral part of a real ruler’s palace, 
the prince’s private preserve kept regularly stocked with danc- 
ing girls and concubines. 

Usually, the jungles of his state were equally a ruler s private 
preserve; their fauna, and above all, their tigers, of which 
20,000 still existed in India in i 947 > the protected prey of his 


Freedom at Midnight 

rifle. Bharatpur bagged his first tiger at eight. By the time he 
was 35, the skins of the tigers he’d killed, stitched together, 
provided the reception rooms of his palace with what 
amounted to wall to wall carpeting. His territory also witnessed 
what was surely a record duck slaughter, 4482 birds in three 
hours during a shoot in honour of a Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. 
The Maharaja of Gwalior killed over 1400 tigers in his lifetime 
and was the author of a work destined for a limited if select 
audience, A Guide to Tiger Shooting. 

The acknowledged master of his generation in both fields 
was the Sikh Sir Bhupinder Singh, the Magnificent, the seventh 
Maharaja of Patiala and father of the Chancellor of the 
Chamber of Princes. Indeed, for the world between two wars, 
Sir Bhupinder incarnated the Maharajas of India. With his 
six-foot-four-inch frame, his 300 pounds, his sensual lips and 
arrogant eyes, his black moustache swept up into perfectly 
waxed needle points, his carefully rolled black beard, he seemed 
to have stepped into the twentieth century off the ivory of 
some Moghul miniature. 

His appetite was such that he could consume twenty pounds 
of food in the course of a strenuous day or a couple of chickens 
as a tea-time snack. He adored polo and, galloping across the 
polo fields of the world at the head of his Tigers of Patiala, 
he accumulated a roomful of silver trophies. To sustain those 
efforts, his stables harboured 500 of the world’s finest polo 
ponies. v 

From his earliest adolescence, Bhupinder Singh demon- 
strated a remarkably refined aptitude for an equally worthy 
princely pastime, sex. As he came to maturity his devotion to 
his harem eventually surpassed even his passions for polo and 
hunting. He personally supervised the steady accumulation of 
its inmates, selecting new recruits with a connoisseur’s appreci- 
ation of variety in appearance and accomplishment in action. 
By the time the institution reached its fullest fruition, it con- 
tained 350 ladies. 

During the torrid Punjab summers, the harem moved out 
of doors in the evening to Bhupinder’s pool. The prince 


Palaces and Tigers , Elephants and Jewels 

stationed a score of bare-breasted girls like nymphs at intervals 
around its rim. Chunks of ice bobbing in the pool’s water gave 
the hot air a delicious chill while the Maharaja floated idly 
about, coming to port from time to time to caress a breast or 
sip a whisky. The walls and ceilings of Bhupinder s private 
quarters were covered with representations of the erotic temple 
sculptures for which India is justly famous, a catalogue of 
copulative possiblities to exhaust the most inventive mind and 
athletic body. A wide silk hammock slung in one corner of 
the room allowed Bhupinder Singh, in a sense, to suspend the 
laws of gravity while attempting to perform in that state some 
of the more complex manoeuvres suggested by his ceiling. 

To satisfy his insatiable habits, the imaginative Maharaja 
embarked on a programme which would allow him to remodel 
the charms of his concubines as his own taste changed. Sir 
Bhupinder opened his harem doors to a parade of perfumers, 
jewellers, hairdressers, beauticians and dressmakers. He even 
kept a team of French, British and Indian plastic surgeons on 
standby to alter the physiognomies of his favourites according 
to his fluctuating tastes or the dictates of the London fashion 
magazines. Further to stimulate his princely ardours, he con- 
verted one wing of the harem into a laboratory whose test 
tubes and vials produced an exotic blend of scents, cosmetics, 
lotions and philtres. 

All those piquant refinements ultimately only served to 
screen the fatal weakness in the Maharaja’s oriental pleasure 
dome. What man, even a Sikh as handsomely endowed by 
nature as Sir Bhupinder was, could satisfy the 350 highly 
trained and motivated ladies lurking behind the harem’s 
grilles? Recourse to aphrodisiacs was inevitable. His Indian 
doctors worked up a number of savoury concoctions based 
on gold, pearls, spices, silver, herbs and iron. For a while, their 
most efficacious potion was based on a mixture of shredded 
carrots and the crushed brains of a sparrow. 

When its benefits began to wane, Sir Bhupinder called in a 
group of French technicians whom he naturally assumed 
would enjoy special expertise in the matter. Alas, even the 


Freedom at Midnight 

effects of their treatment based on radium proved ephemeral 
because they, like their predecessors, had no cure for the real 
illness from which the Maharaja suffered. It was not lack of 
virility that afflicted the jaded and sated prince. His was a 
malady that plagued not a few of his surfeited fellow rulers. 
It was boredom. He died of it. 

Inevitably, in God-obsessed India, legend and folklore ascribed 
divine descent to some princes. The Maharajas of Mysore 
traced their ancestry to the moon. Once a year, at the autumnal 
equinox, the Maharaja became in the eyes of his people a living 
God. For nine days, like a saddhu in a Himalayan cave, he 
secluded himself in a darkened room of his palace. He didn’t 
shave or wash. No human hand was allowed to touch him, 
no eye to glimpse him during those days when his body was 
supposedly inhabited by a God. The ninth day he emerged. 
An elephant draped in gold tapestries, its forehead covered 
with an emerald-studded shield, waited at the palace gate to 
bear him amidst an escort of lancers on camel and horseback 
to an un-Godlike destination, the Mysore race track. There, 
before the multitudes of his subjects jammed into the stands, 
Brahmin priests chanting mantras bathed, shaved and fed him. 
As the sunset and darkness shrouded the track, a jet black 
horse was brought to the prince. At the instant he mounted 
it, thousands of torches around the perimeter of the track were 
lit. In their flickering roseate glare, the prince galloped around 
the track on his black horse to the applause of his subjects, 
most of them grateful because the Son of the Moon was back 
amongst his people, some more mundanely thankful for the 
picturesque pageant their ruler had offered them. 

The Maharajas of Udaipur traced their descent from an even 
more impressive celestial body, the sun. Theirs was the most 
ancient throne in India, a rule that had run uninterrupted for 
at least 2000 years. Once a year Udaipur, too, became a kind of 
living God. Erect in the prow of a galley resembling Cleopatra’s 
barge, he was borne back across the crocodile-infested waters 
of the lake surrounding his palace for a symbolic re-installation 


Palaces and Tigers, Elephants and Jewels 

in its premises. On the deck behind him the nobles of his 
court in long white muslin robes stood ranged in grateful 

Less grandiose in their pretensions, but no less pious were 
the rulers of Benares, the sacred city on the banks of the 
Ganges. By tradition the eyes of the Maharaja of those blessed 
precincts had to open each day on a sole and unique vision, 
the Hindu symbol of cosmic eternity, a Sacred Cow. Each 
dawn a cow was led to the window of the princely bedchamber 
and jabbed in the ribs so that her mooing would stir the 
pious Maharaja from his slumber. Once, during a visit to his 
colleague the Nawab of Rampur, fulfilling that morning ritual 
posed a grave problem because the Maharaja’s quarters were 
located on the second floor of his host’s palace. The Nawab 
finally resorted to an ingenious tactic to maintain the integrity 
of his guest’s dawns. He bought a crane which each morning 
hoisted a cow in a sling up to the Maharaja’s bedroom window. 
Terrified by her unnatural voyage, the poor animal emitted a 
series of moos so piercing that they not only woke up the 
pious Maharaja but most of the rest of the palace as well. 

Pious or atheist, Hindu or Moslem, rich or poor, decadent or 
saintly, the maharajas had been for almost two centuries the 
surest pillar of British rule in India. It was in their relations 
with the states that the British had applied to greatest effect 
the ‘Divide and Rule’ doctrine with which they were accused 
of governing India. In theory, the British could remove a ruler 
from his throne for misrule. In fact, a ruler could get away 
with almost any kind of outrageous behaviour down to and 
including a few discreet murders without the British disturbing 
him - provided his loyalty had remained intact. The inevitable 
result was a series of grateful and generally reactionary princely 
enclaves studded like anchors against a revolutionary wind 
throughout those parts of India ruled directly by the British. 

The princes’ loyalty took more tangible forms as well. The 
Maharaja of Jodhpur’s Lancers led the charge that took Haifa 
from the Turks in Allenby’s Palestine campaign on 23 

*78 Freedom at Midnight 

September 1917.* Bikaner’s Camel Corps fought at Britain’s 
side in two wars in China, Palestine, Egypt, France and under 
Louis Mountbatten’s orders in Burma. Gwalior sent the 
beleaguered British three battalions of infantry and a hospital 
ship in 1917* All those forces were raised, equipped, paid for 
and maintained by the rulers themselves, not the government 
of India. The Maharaja of Jaipur, a major in the Lifeguards, 
led his First Jaipur Infantry up the slopes of Italy’s Monte 
Cassino in 1943. The Maharaja of Bundi won the Military Cross 
in action with his battalion in Burma. 

The grateful British acknowledged their debt to their faithful 
and generous vassals by showering them with honours and 
the baubles they loved best of all, jewel-studded decorations. 
Gwalior, Cooch Behar and Patiala were accorded the honour 
of riding as honorary ADCs beside the royal carriage of 
Edward VII at his coronation. Oxford and Cambridge 
conferred their degrees, honorary and earned, on the 
rulers and their progeny. The bejewelled chests of the crown’s 
most loyal princes were embellished by the glittering stars 
of the Order of the Star of India or the Order of the Indian 

It was above all by the subtle gradations of a particularly 
ingenious form of award that the esteem of the paramount 
power for its vassals was to be measured. The number of guns 
in the salute accorded a ruler provided the final and definitive 
proof of his place in the princely hierarchy. It was within the 
Viceroy s power to increase the number of guns in a salute so 
as to reward a ruler for exceptional services, or to reduce the 
salute as a punishment. Size and population were not the sole 
factors determining a man’s salute. Fidelity to the paramount 
power and the blood and treasure expended in its defence 

In a more peaceful sphere, the same Maharaja had introduced Western 
society to the tapered riding breeches ‘jodhpurs’ favoured in his state during 
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London. On arriving for 
the festivities, the unfortunate prince discovered that the ship carrying his 
luggage had gone down at sea. To save the situation he was forced to divulge 
to a London tailor the secret of how his favourite trousers were made. 


Palaces and Tigers , Elephants and Jewels 

were equally important. Five rulers - Hyderabad, Gwalior, 
Kashmir, Mysore and Baroda - were entitled to the supreme 
accolade, 21 guns. Nineteen, seventeen, fifteen, thirteen, eleven 
and nine gun states were ranged behind them. For 425 unfortu- 
nate rajas and nawabs, rulers of insignificant little princi- 
palities, there was no salute at all. They were India’s forgotten 
rulers, the men for whom the guns never spoke. 

The India of the maharajas was often noted for substantial 
achievements as well. Where the rulers were enlightened men, 
often Western-educated, the state’s subjects enjoyed benefits 
and privileges unknown in those areas administered directly 
by the British. Baroda had banned polygamy and made edu- 
cation free and universal before the turn of the century. He 
had campaigned for the Untouchables with a zeal less well 
known but no less sincere than Gandhi’s. He created insti- 
tutions to house and educated them and personally financed 
the education of the man who became their leader, Dr Bhimrad 
Ambedkar, at Columbia University in New York. Bikaner had 
turned parts of his Rajasthan desert kingdom into a paradise 
of artificial lakes and gardens for his subjects’ use. Bhopal 
offered women an equality of status and position unequalled 
in India. Mysore harboured Asia’s best science faculty and a 
chain of hydro-electric dams and industries. The descendant 
of one of history’s greatest astronomers, a man who had trans- 
lated Euclid’s Principles of Geometry into Sanskrit, the Maharaja 
of Jaipur maintained in his capital one of the world’s outstand- 
ing observatories. With the Second World War, a new genera- 
tion of rulers had begun to ascend the thrones, men usually 
less flamboyant, less self-indulgent than their fathers, more 
conscious of the need for change and the reformation of their 
states. One of the first acts of the eighth Maharaja of Patiala 
was to close the harem of his father Sir Bhupinder Singh the 
Magnificent. The Maharaja of Gwalior married a commoner, 
the brilliant daughter of a civil servant, and moved out of his 
father’s vast palace. Unhappily for those men and many others 
like them who ruled their states responsibly and ably, the 

180 Freedom at Midnight 

public would always associate the maharajas of India with the 
excess and extravagances of a handful among them. 

For two of India’s states, for two princes enjoying the supreme 
honour of 21 guns, the initiative undertaken in London by Sir 
Conrad Corfield had profound significance. Both states were 
enormous. Both were landlocked. Both had rulers whose 
religion differed from that of the vast majority of their subjects. 
Both rulers caressed the same dream: to convert their states 
into wholly independent, sovereign nations. 

Of all the bizarre and exotic rulers in India, Rustum-i- 
Dauran, Arustu-i-Zeman, Wal Mamalik, Asif Jah, Nawab Mir 
Osman, Alikhar Bahadur, Musafrul Mulk Nizam al-Mud, 
Sipah Solar, Fateh Jang, His Exalted Highness, Most Faithful 
Ally of the British Crown, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad 
was surely the most bizarre. A devout and learned Moslem, 
he and an Islamic ruling caste presided over the largest and 
most populous state in India, an entity of 20 million Hindus 
and only 3 million Moslems set in the heart of the sub- 
continent. He was a frail, little old man of five foot three 
weighing barely 90 pounds. Years of devoted chewing of betel 
nut had reduced his teeth to a line of rotting reddish-brown 
fangs. He lived in constant dread of being poisoned by some 
jealous courtier and was followed everywhere by a food taster 
whom he obliged to share his unvarying diet of cream, sweets, 
fruits, betel nuts and a nightly bowl of opium. The Nizam was 
the only ruler in India entitled to the appellation ‘Exalted 
Highness’, a distinction conferred on him by a grateful Britain 
in recognition of his £2501. contribution to their war-chest in 
World War I. 

In 1947, the Nizam was reputed to be the richest man in 
the world and the legends of his wealth were surpassed only 
by the legends of the avarice with which he sought to hold it 
intact. He dressed in rumpled cotton pyjamas and ill-formed 
grey slippers bought in the local market place for a few rupees. 
For 35 years he’d worn the same soiled, dandruff-encrusted 
fez. Although he owned a gold service for 100 places, he ate 

Palaces and Tigers, Elephants and Jewels 181 

off a tin plate, squatting on a mat in his bedroom. So stingy 
was he, he smoked the cigarette stubs left behind by his guests. 
When a state occasion forced him to put champagne on the 
princely table, he saw to it the single bottle he reluctantly set 
out never got more than three or four places from him. In 
1944 when Wavell was arriving for a viceregal visit, the Nizam 
cabled Delhi enquiring whether, in view of its high wartime 
cost, the Viceroy really insisted on being served champagne. 
Once a week, after Sunday service, the English Resident came 
to call. Faithfully a retainer appeared with a tray containing a 
cup of tea, a biscuit and a cigarette for the Nizam and his 
guest. One Sunday, the Resident arrived unannounced with a 
particularly distinguished visitor. The Nizam whispered to his 
servant who returned to offer the visitor a second tray on which 
had been set one cup of tea, one biscuit and one cigarette. 

In most states, it was the custom once a year for the nobles 
to make their prince a symbolic offering of a gold piece which 
the ruler touched, then returned to its owner. In Hyderabad, 
there was nothing symbolic about the offering. The Nizam 
grabbed each gold piece and dropped it into a paper bag beside 
his throne. On one occasion when one fell, he was on his 
hands and knees like a shot, racing its owner along the floor 
to the rolling coin. 

Indeed, so miserly was the Nizam that when his doctor 
arrived from Bombay to give him an electro-cardiogram, he 
couldn’t make his machine work. The doctor finally discovered 
why. In order to save on his electricity bill, the Nizam had cut 
back the palace’s current: no machine could function properly 
on it. 

The Nizam’s bedroom looked like a slum hut, its furnishings 
consisting of a battered bed and table, three kitchen chairs, 
overflowing ashtrays and waste-paper baskets emptied once a 
year on the Nizam’s birthday. His office was littered with stacks 
of dusty state archives, its ceiling a forest of cobwebs. 

Yet tucked into the corners of that palace was a fortune 
beyond counting. In one drawer of the Nizam’s desk, wrapped 
in an old newspaper, was the Jacob diamond, a bauble the 


Freedom at Midnight 

size of a lime: 280 sparkling, precious carats. The Nizam used 
it as a paper-weight. In the overgrown garden was a convoy 
of dozens of trucks mired in mud up to their axles from the 
weight of their loads, solid gold ingots. The Nizam’s jewels, a 
collection so enormous it was said the pearls alone would 
cover all the pavements of PiccadiUy Circus, were spilled like 
coals in a scuttle on the floors of his cellars; sapphires, emer- 
alds, rubies, diamonds, mingled in indiscriminate heaps. He 
had well over two million pounds in cash - sterling, rupees - 
wrapped in old newspapers, stuck in dusty corners of the 
palace’s basement and attic. There they earned a kind of nega- 
tive interest from the jaws of the rats who annually gnawed 
their way through thousands of pounds of the Nizam’s fortune. 

The Nizam had a sizeable army equipped with heavy artillery 
and aircraft. Indeed, he had every possible requirement for 
independence except two - a seaport and the support of his 

His overwhelmingly Hindu population detested the Moslem 
minority which ruled them. Nonetheless, there was no ques- 
tion about the future that the miserly, slightly demented ruler 
of a state half the size of France foresaw for himself. 

‘At last,’ he shouted, leaping from his chair when Sir Conrad 
Corfield had informed him of Britain’s decision to leave India 
by June 1948, ‘I shall be free.’ 

A similar ambition burned in the breast of another powerful 
prince at the other end of India. Reigning over the enchanted 
valley that cradled one of the world’s most beautiful sites, the 
Vale of Kashmir, Hari Singh, Maharaja of Kashmir, was a 
Hindu of a high Brahmin sub-caste whose 4 million subjects 
were overwhelmingly Moslem. His state, set against the awe- 
some crests of the Himalayas, was the attic to the Roof of the 
World, the remote, wind-swept spaces of Ladakh, Tibet and 
Sinkiang, a vital crossroads where India, a future Pakistan, 
China and Afghanistan were certain to meet. 

Hari Singh was a weak, vacillating, indecisive man who 
divided his time between opulent feasts in his winter capital 
in Jammu and the beautifril, flower-choked lagoons of his 


Palaces and Tigers, Elephants and Jewels 

summer capital, Srinagar, the Venice of the Orient. He had 
begun his reign with a few timid aims at reform, quickly 
abandoned for an authoritarian rule which kept his jails filled 
with political foes. Their most recent occupant had been none 
other than Jawaharlal Nehru. The prince had ordered Nehru 
arrested when he’d tried to visit the state in which he’d been 
born. Hari Singh, too, had an army to defend the frontiers of 
his state and give his claims to independence a menacing 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 


London, May 1947 

The man riding up to 10 Downing Street should have been 
contrite or, at the least, apprehensive. Louis Mountbatten was 
neither. He had flown to London in response to a request 
from Attlee for a personal explanation of what had gone wrong 
in Simla. Lord Ismay, his Chief of Staff, had warned him 
at the airport that the government was ‘hopping mad. They 
don t know what you re doing and they’re not sure you do 

Mountbatten, however, had in his briefcase the new draft of 
his plan prepared by V. P. Menon after Nehru had vigorously 
rejected his earlier text. He was confident it held the key to the 
Indian dilemma. Before leaving Simla he’d received Nehru’s 
assurance that Congress would accept it. Mountbatten did not 
propose ‘to do any explaining away’. He intended, instead, to 
substitute this plan for the old one and tell Attlee and his 
Cabinet ‘how lucky they were I’d had my hunch’. 

Poised and smiling, Mountbatten got out of his car and 
walked past the popping flash-bulbs into the building in 
which, just six months earlier, he’d been given his terrible 

Waiting for him were Attlee, Sir Stafford Cripps, and the 
other key members of the Labour government involved with 
India. Their greetings were cordial but restrained. Undaunted, 
Mountbatten sat down and set to work. ‘I gave them no apol- 
ogy, he later recalled, ‘nor any explanations. I had the most 
frightful, not quite conceit, but complete and absolute belief 
that it all depended on me and they really had to do what I 

i8 5 

A Day Cursed by the Stars 

As a result of the changes in his original draft cabled to 
Delhi he had, he said, played a hunch and shown it to Nehru. 
That had revealed certain fundamental Congress objections 
which would have produced a disaster had the plan been for- 
mally submitted to Congress. They had been met in his new 
draft and he was confident he had now placed before them a 
plan all concerned would accept. Beyond that, he told Attlee, 
he could now reveal a remarkable piece of news. 

He had been able to honour the pledge he’d made the 
King before leaving London. He could now assure the Attlee 
government that an independent India and Pakistan would 
remain linked to Britain in the British Commonwealth. Jinnah 
had always wanted to keep an independent Pakistan in the 
Commonwealth, but to Congress maintaining a tie to the 
Crown, the symbolic link binding the Commonwealth’s 
members, had been a difficult concept to accept. The British 
Crown had been, after all, the symbol against which their 
struggle had been directed. 

Patiently, persistently, almost secretively, Mountbatten had 
stressed the advantages of a Commonwealth tie, pointing out 
that it was the only way India could secure the loan of the 
officers she would need to complete the development of her 
armed forces. While he was in Simla, he’d received a message 
from Vallabhbhai Patel. The shrewd Congress leader knew 
Mountbatten was in a hurry to see power transferred to Indian 
hands. So was he. Patel suggested Mountbatten employ a time- 
saving device for the actual transfer of power; simply to pro- 
claim India and Pakistan independent dominions like Canada 
inside the British Commonwealth. That way all concerned, 
Patel pointed out, could avoid the lengthy process of drawing 
up constitutions and electing bodies to which Britain would 
formally hand over. If Mountbatten acted quickly, long before 
the old deadline of 30 June 1948, then a grateful Congress 
would not sever the Commonwealth ties that automatically 
went with dominion status. 

Mountbatten was delighted. Patel’s proposal was in fact what 
he’d been secretly lobbying for for weeks. He had eagerly 


Freedom at Midnight 

ordered V. P. Menon to incorporate the idea into the redrafted 
plan he was submitting to Attlee. 

The key to the situation now, he said, was speed. He had 
put before them a plan for the Transfer of Power which he 
could assure them was acceptable to the Indians. It would keep 
both nations in the British Commonwealth. Delay now would 
risk immersing Britain in the situation against which he’d been 
warning them since his arrival in India, a sub-continent sinking 
into civil war. The burden was on them. How quickly could 
they drive through Parliament the legislation necessary to real- 
ize his plan? 

It was an awesome demonstration of Mountbatten at his 
dynamic, persuasive best. By the time he’d finished, the ‘hop- 
ping mad’ Attlee government was eating out of his hand. They 
accepted his new draft plan without the alteration of so much 
as a comma. 

‘My God,’ exclaimed Ismay, the veteran of so many stormy 
scenes in Downing Street, as they left the meeting, ‘I’ve seen 
some performances in my lifetime, but what you just did to 
the people in there beats them all!’ 

The familiar figure in the bed, a quilted dressing-gown falling 
from his shoulders, half- rim spectacles poised on the bridge 
of his nose, his constant trade mark, a cigar, clamped in his 
mouth, had been one of the fixtures on the horizon of Louis 
Mountbatten’s life. 

Among Mountbatten’s early memories was the image of 
Churchill, the young, flamboyant First Lord of the Admiralty, 
chatting with his father, then First Sea Lord. Mountbatten’s 
mother had once warned him light-heartedly that the man 
who would one day be the symbol of European resistance to 
Hitler, was ‘unreliable’. He had committed what was, in her 
eyes, an unpardonable sin. He had failed to return a book he’d 

The young naval officer and the unheeded politician calling 
for Britain’s rearmament had become friendly in the months 
after Munich. Later, after Churchill had given him his first 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

major wartime command at Combined Operations, a close 
relationship had grown up between the two men. Mountbatten 
had been a frequent visitor to Churchill’s wartime command 
post at to Downing Street/ 

Churchill, Mountbatten knew, was very fond of him, but, 
he thought, ‘for all the wrong reasons. He thought I was a 
swashbuckler, a warrior. He had no idea what my political 
outlook was.’ The young admiral was certain he would ‘have 
been dropped like a shot’ for his views on South-east Asia s 
future had Churchill been re-elected in 1945. 

Now he had come at Attlee’s request, to get Churchill to 

* Mountbatten had, in fact, been Churchill’s luncheon guest along with Max 
Beaverbrook, the newspaper publisher, on Saturday, June 21 194'- The Prime 
Minister announced when he joined his guests, T ve got some very exciting 
news. Hitler is going to attack Russia tomorrow. We’ve spent all morning 
trying to evaluate what it means.’ 

‘I’ll tell you what’ll happen,’ Beaverbrook said. ‘They’ll go through the 
Russians like a dose of salts. God, they’ll wipe them up! They’ll be through 
in a month or six weeks.’ ‘Well,’ said Churchill, the Americans think it will 
take more like two months and our own chiefs think at least that. 1 myself 
think they may last as long as three months, but then they 11 fold up and 
we’ll be back where we started with our backs to the wall.’ 

Mountbatten was forgotten for some time until Churchill turned to him 
and said, almost apologetically, ‘Ah, Dickie, do tell us about your battle in 

‘It’s past history,’ Mountbatten replied, ‘but may I be allowed to give an 
opinion about what’s going to happen in Russia?’ 

Somewhat reluctantly Churchill agreed. 

‘I disagree with Max,’ said Mountbatten, T disagree with the Americans, 
our chiefs and, quite honestly, I disagree with you. Prime Minister. I don’t 
think the Russians are going to fold up. I don’t think they re going to be 
defeated. This is the end of Hitler. It’s the turning point of the war.’ 

‘Well, now Dickie,’ said Churchill, ‘why should your views be so different?’ 
‘First,’ answered Mountbatten, ‘because Stalin’s purge trials have elimin- 
ated much potential internal opposition to which the Nazis might have 
appealed. Second, and it’s painful for me to say this because my family ruled 
there for so long, but the people now feel they have a stake in the country. 
This time they'll fight. They feel they have something to lose.’ 

Churchill was not impressed. ‘Well, Dickie,’ he said, ‘it’s very nice to hear 
a young, enthusiastic voice like yours. But we’ll see.’ 


Freedom at Midnight 

perform what would be one of the most painful acts of the 
old Tory’s political career. He wanted his personal blessing on 
the plan which would begin the dismemberment of Churchill’s 
beloved empire. 

Winston, Attlee had told Mountbatten when asking him 
to see Churchill, ‘holds the key in England. Neither I nor any 
of my government could possibly persuade him, but he’s fond 
of you. He trusts you. You have ,a chance.’ 

Their meeting began on a difficult note. Churchill, Mount- 
batten knew, thought the very idea the Indians should ever be 
allowed to try to run themselves was madness. ‘He was abso- 
lutely sincere’, Mountbatten remembered, in his belief that the 
worst thing which could happen to India would be to have its 
efficient British administration of proven integrity removed 
and replaced by a whole lot of ‘inexperienced, theoretical and 
probably corrupt Indians’. 

As he reviewed his efforts in India, Mountbatten kept his 
eyes on the great bald head glaring at him from the bed. For 
half a century, Churchill had said ‘no’ to every move to bring 
India along the road to independence. One last Churchillian 
‘no’ now would be a devastating blow to all Mountbatten’s 
hopes. With the Tory majority in the House of Lords, Churchill 
had the power to delay passage of India’s independence bill 
for two full years. 

That, the ambitious young Viceroy knew, ‘would be abso- 
lutely fatal’. Congress’s agreement to his plan was conditional 
on dominion status being offered immediately. His govern- 
ment, his administration, a sub-continent seething with 
communal passions, could not survive two years’ delay. 

Eyes half-closed, Churchill listened to Mountbatten’s argu- 
ments with the inscrutable air of a Buddha lost in transcen- 
dental meditation. Nothing, the perspective of India’s collapse, 
chaos, civil disorder, awakened his impassive features. 

Mountbatten had, however, brought back from Simla one 
argument that could arouse the old leader’s emotions. It was 
Congress’s promise to accept dominion status if it was offered 
immediately. As he skilfully opened the vista of the Raj’s most 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

implacable foes agreeing to remain within the ranks of the 
British Commonwealth, Churchill’s attitude altered percep- 
tibly: his beloved empire might be dying, but here, at least, 
was the hope something of it would remain. There would be 
something left of that old India where he’d burned out his 
romantic youth. Much more important, some of those British 
links Churchill sincerely believed indispensable to India’s 
future well-being could now be maintained. 

Suspiciously, he eyed Mountbatten. Did he have anything 
in writing? he asked. Mountbatten said he had a letter from 
Nehru, now with Attlee, indicating Congress would accept, 
providing dominion status was conferred without delay. 

And what about his old foe, Gandhi? 

Gandhi, Mountbatten admitted, was unpredictable. He was 
the one potentially grave danger. But with the help of Nehru 
and Patel, he hoped he could contain him in a crisis. 

Churchill glowered on his bed, thinking, his cigar clutched 
between his teeth. 

Finally, he declared that, if Mountbatten really could deliver 
the formal, public acceptance of all the Indian parties to his 
plan, then, ‘the whole country’ would be behind him. He 
and his Conservative Party would join Labour in cramming 
through Parliament the historic legislation Mountbatten 
needed before its summer recess. India could become indepen- 
dent not in years or months, but in weeks, even days. 

New Delhi, May-June 1947 

Dark, velvet pillars, the smoke of a scries of funeral pyres crept 
into the Indian skies at points scattered across the sub- 
continent. No ghee or sandalwood stoked those hastily 
assembled bonfires. Their crackling flames were watched over, 
not by mantra-chanting mourners, but by impassive circles of 
British bureaucrats. It was paper those flames were devouring, 
four tons of documents, reports and files. Lit on the orders of 
Sir Conrad Corfield, that series of bonfires was converting into 
ashes the lurid details of some of the most tumultuous and 


Freedom at Midnight 

picturesque episodes in Indian history, the chronicles of the 
vices and scandals of five generations of maharajas. Recorded 
and catalogued with meticulous care by successive representa- 
tives of the Raj, those files could have become sources of 
blackmail in the hands of independent Indian and Pakistan 
administrations, a purpose not altogether unforeseen by the 
British themselves when the decision was made to accumulate 

No longer able to guarantee the future of his maharajas, 
Corfield had been determined to protect, at least, their past. 
He had secured the Attlee government’s agreement to the 
destruction of these archives. As soon as he had returned to 
Delhi he ordered his Residents and political agents to begin 
the burning of any files in their possession dealing with the 
private lives of their charges. 

Sir Conrad lit the first fire himself under the windows of 
his office, nourishing it with the documents concealed in a 
two-foot-high safe to which only he and one other man had the 
key. A hundred and fifty years of reading, a select distillation of 
the most juicy of princely scandals, went up in smoke in Sir 
Conrad’s little bonfire, drifting off in ashes over the roofs 
and streets of Delhi. Alerted to what was happening, Nehru 
immediately protested at the destruction of material which 
was in his eyes a precious part of India’s patrimony. 

It was too late. In Patiala, Hyderabad, Indore, Mysore, Bar- 
oda, at Porbandar, Gandhi’s home on the shores of the Gulf 
of Arabia, at Chitral in the Himalayas and in the sweltering 
rain forests of Cochin, British officials were already feeding 
the gossip of an era to the flames. 

The accounts of the sexual eccentricities of some of India’s 
princes were in themselves lengthy enough to keep a good fire 
burning for hours. An early Nawab of Rampur had made a 
bet with a number of neighbouring princes as to which ruler 
would be able to deflower the most virgins in a year. The 
proof of each conquest would be the thin gold ring traditionally 
worn by an unbedded girl in her nose. Sending out his cour- 
tiers to comb the villages of his state like beaters scaring up 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

pheasants, the Nawab won the bet handily. By the end of the 
year, his collection of rings, melted down, represented several 
pounds of pure gold. 

The bonfire consuming the archives dealing with the Mah- 
araja of Kashmir destroyed the traces of one of the more 
unsavoury scandals of the world between the wars. The 
impetuous prince was trapped in flagrante delicto in London s 
Savoy Hotel by a man he assumed to be the husband of his 
ravishing bed companion. In fact, the prince had fallen into 
the net of a gang of blackmailers who proceeded to drain the 
state of Kashmir via the prince’s personal bank account, of a 
very considerable part of its revenues. The case finally broke 
when the young lady’s real husband, persuaded he had not 
been properly remunerated for the loan of his wife, went to the 
police. In the case which followed, the unfortunate Maharaja’s 
identity was concealed under the pseudonym of Mr ‘A’. Dis- 
illusioned for good with women as a result of his tribulations, 
Hari Singh returned to Kashmir where he discovered new 
sexual horizons in the company of the young men of his state. 
The accounts of his activities had been faithfully reported 
to the representatives of the Crown. Now, whipped by the 
fresh mountain breeze of Srinagar, they disappeared into the 
Himalayan sky. 

The Nizam of Hyderabad combined his passions for pho- 
tography and pornography to amass what was believed to be 
the most extensive collection of pornographic photographs in 
India. To assemble it, the ageing Nizam had disguised in the 
walls and ceilings of his guests’ quarters automatic cameras 
that faithfully recorded all that went on in them. He had even 
installed a camera behind the mirror in his palace’s guest 
bathroom. The camera’s harvest, a portrait gallery of the great 
and near-great of India relieving themselves on the Nizam’s 
toilet, had pride of place in his collection. 

The most recent report in the Nizam’s file dealt with the 
British Resident’s efforts to make certain that the sexual pro- 
clivities of his son and heir were those befitting a future Nizam. 
As tactfully as he could, the worthy gentleman alluded to 


Freedom at Midnight 

certain reports reaching his ears which indicated the young 
prince’s tastes did not encompass princesses. The Nizam sum- 
moned his son. Then he ordered into their presence a particu- 
larly attractive inmate of his harem. Over the embarrassed 
protest of the Resident, he instructed his son to give an 
immediate and public refutation of the dastardly insinuation 
that he might not be inclined to continue the family line. 

Of all the scandals disappearing in the flames of Conrad 
Corfield’s bonfires, none had left a trace quite as distasteful as 
that of the 40-year reign of the prince of a small state of 
800,000 people on the edges of the Rajasthan. The Maharaja 
of Alwar was a man of such charm and culture that he had 
been able to seduce a succession of Viceroys into tolerating 
his activities. He happened to believe he was a reincarnation 
of the God Rama. As a result he constantly wore black silk 
gloves to protect his divine fingers from the contaminating 
touch of mortal flesh, even refusing to remove them to shake 
the hand of the Kjng of England. He engaged a number of 
Hindu theologians to calculate the exact size of the turban of 
Rama so that he could make a copy for himself. 

What with his temporal role as a prince and his conviction 
of his divine status, Alwar was not a man to restrain himself 
in the exercise of his power. One of the best shots in India, 
he delighted in using children as tiger bait in his hunts. Pluck- 
ing them from any hut in his state, he assured their horrified 
parents he was certain to get a shot into the beast before it 
could maul their offspring. A homosexual of particularly per- 
verse taste, he made the royal bed the military academy, quali- 
fying young men for entry into the officer class of his army. 
Once there, they were expected to participate in his orgies, a 
number of which culminated in sadistic murders. 

His abuses of authority were finally brought to a head by two 
incidents during the Viceroyalty of Lord Willingdon. Invited 
to lunch at Viceroy’s House, Alwar was seated next to Lady 
Willingdon who admired effusively a large diamond ring on 
his finger. Slipping it off his hand, Alwar passed it to the 
Vicereine for her private contemplation. 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

Lady Willingdon’s admiration had not been entirely disin- 
terested. Tradition had it that a prince would offer a Viceroy 
or Vicereine any object he or she had admired with particular 
interest. Lady Willingdon, who had notably admiring eyes 
when it came to precious stones, had thus amassed during her 
stay in India a considerable collection of jewellery. She slipped 
Always ring on to her finger, regarded it with pleasure, then 
passed it back to its owner. 

Alwar discreetly asked a waiter to bring him a finger bowl. 
When it arrived, the reincarnation of Rama proceeded, before 
the widening eyes of his fellow guests, meticulously to wash 
from his ring whatever traces the Vicereine’s finger might have 
left upon it before slipping it back on to his own hand. 

The final, unpardonable crime of the depraved prince in 
the eyes of his British benefactors took place on a polo field. 
Furious at the disobedience of one of his ponies during a 
match, the prince had the poor beast drenched with kerosene 
between chukkers, then personally set a match to it. That 
flagrant public display of cruelty to animals weighed more 
heavily in the scales of justice than his more private, but equally 
terminal, cruelty to a number of his sexual partners. Alwar 
was deposed and packed off into exile. 

While Alwar’s case was exceptional, it was not the only incident 
to have troubled relations between India’s puritanical British 
rulers and their extravagant vassal s. The gravest of those crises 
had been occasioned by a Maharaja of Baroda. Displeased that 
the British should have accorded their Resident in his state - 
an obscure, and in the Maharaja’s eyes rather common colonel 
- a gun salute similar to his own, the prince ordered a pair 
of cannon in solid gold to give his salute a resonance more 
regal than the colonel’s. The Resident, angered by the prince’s 
gesture, forwarded to London a distinctly unfavourable report 
on Baroda’s morals, accusing him of enslaving the women in 
his harem. 

Advised of what was going on, Baroda summoned his best 
astrologers and holy men to propose a suitable means of getting 


Freedom at Midnight 

rid of the unwanted colonel and a proper conjuncture of the 
stars under which to do it. Their recommendation was poison 
by diamond dust. The prince selected one the size of an acorn, 
a dimension held to be suitable for a man of the colonel's 
rank, and his astrologers ground it into powder. 

The highly indigestible result was slipped into the colonel's 
dinner one night, but before it could have the desired effect, 
the pain it produced landed the colonel in a hospital where 
his stomach was pumped out. 

The attempted murder of a representative of the Crown 
became an affair of state. The Maharaja's judges were not 
impressed by the assurances of his Brahmin priests that they 
had duly performed all the rites necessary to assure the reincar- 
nation of the colonel's soul, nor those of his jeweller who 
declared the value of the diamond unwillingly consumed by 
the Resident ‘corresponded exactly to that of an English 
colonel'. The Maharaja was deposed and sent into exile for his 
failure properly tp administer a state dependent upon the 
British Crown. 

His exile was avenged by his friend and fellow ruler, the 
Maharaja of Patiala. When the Viceroy who’d signed the decree 
of exile visited his state, Patiala ordered the gunners who would 
fire the 31-gun salute due the representative of the King 
Emperor to stuff their cannon with a powder ration so small 
that the envoy of Imperial England would be honoured by an 
explosion ‘not louder than a child’s fire cracker'. 

The destruction of those records was not the only action 
that followed Corfield’s visit to London. From all over India, 
letters began to flow into New Delhi from various princes 
informing the central administration of their intention to can- 
cel the agreements which allowed Indian railways, posts, tele- 
graph and other facilities to function in their territories. It was 
a tactical gesture meant to underline the princes' bargaining 
power in the coming showdown, but the vista they opened 
was appalling: an India in which trains couldn't run, mail get 
delivered or telecommunications function properly. 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

The lustreless eyes of Robert Clive gazed down from the great 
oil painting at the seven Indian leaders filing into the Viceroy’s 
study. Representatives of India’s 400 million human beings, 
those millions Gandhi called ‘miserable specimens of humanity 
with lustreless eyes’, they entered Mountbatten’s study on this 
morning of 2 June 1947, to inspect the deeds which would 
return to them their continent. The Viceroy himself had 
brought them back from London, formally approved by the 
British Cabinet, just 48 hours before. 

One by one, they took their places at the circular table in 
the centre of the room: Congress, represented by Nehru, Patel 
and its president Acharya Kripalani; the Moslem League, by 
Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan and Rab Nishtar. Baldev Singh was 
present as spokesman for the 6 million people who would be 
more dramatically affected by the words about to be spoken 
than any others in India, the Sikhs. 

Against the wall sat Mountbatten’s two key advisers, Lord 
Ismay and Sir Eric Mieville. At the centre of the table was the 
Viceroy. An official photographer hastily recorded the gather- 
ing for history. Then, in a silence interrupted only by the rasp 
of nervous throats being cleared, a secretary set before each 
man a manilla folder containing a copy of the plan. 

For the first time since he had arrived in Delhi, Mountbatten 
was now being forced to abandon his tete-a-tete diplomacy 
for a round-table conference. He had decided however, that 
he would do the talking. He was not going to run the risk of 
throwing the meeting open to a general discussion which might 
degenerate into an acrimonious shouting match. 

He began by noting that, during the past five years, he had 
taken part in a number of momentous meetings at which the 
decisions that had determined the fate of the war had been taken. 
He could remember no meeting, however, at which decisions 
had been taken whose impact upon history had been as pro- 
found as would be the impact of the decision before them. 

Briefly, Mountbatten reviewed his conversations since arriv- 
ing in Delhi, stressing the terrible sense of urgency they had 
impressed on him. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Then, for the record and for history, he formally asked 
Jinnah one last time if he was prepared to accept Indian unity 
as envisaged by the Cabinet Mission Plan. With equal formal- 
ity, Jinnah replied he was not. Mountbatten moved on to the 
matter at hand. Briefly, he reviewed the details of his plan. 
The clause on dominion status which had won Winston Chur- 
chill’s support was not, he stressed, a reflection of a British 
desire to keep a foot in the door, but was to ensure that British 
assistance would not be summarily withdrawn if it was still 
needed. He dwelt on Calcutta, on the coming agony of the 

He would not, he said, ask them to go against their con- 
sciences and give their full approval to a plan, parts of which 
went against their principles. He asked only that they accept 
it in a peaceful spirit and vow to make it work without 

His intention, he said, was to meet with them again the 
following morning. He hoped that before that, before mid- 
night, all three parties, the Moslem League, Congress and the 
Sikhs, would have indicated their willingness to accept 
the plan as a basis for a final Indian settlement. If this was the 
case, then he proposed that he, Nehru, Jinnah and Baldev Singh 
announce their agreement jointly to the world the following 
evening on All India Radio. Clement Attlee would make a 
confirmatory announcement from London. 

Gentlemen, he concluded, ‘I should like your reaction to 
the plan by midnight.’ 

One unspoken fear had flown back to Delhi with Louis Mount- 
batten, marring his satisfaction with his achievements in 
London and his ‘enormous optimism’ for the future. It was 
that ‘that unpredictable little Mahatma Gandhi’ was going to 
go against him. 

It was a prospect the Viceroy dreaded. He had already 
developed a genuine affection for his ‘dejected little sparrow’. 
The idea that he, the professional warrior, the Viceroy, should 
have to face the apostle of non-violence in a showdown over 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

the future of the nation which Gandhi symbolized to the world, 
was appalling to him. 

It was, however, a very real risk. If Jinnah had been the man 
who had destroyed his hopes of keeping India united, Gandhi 
was the man who could destroy his hopes of dividing it. Since 
his arrival in India, Mountbatten had subtly striven to draw 
to him the Congress leaders, so that, in case of a showdown, 
he could hope to neutralize the Mahatma for a brief but vital 

The task had been easier than he’d expected. ‘I had the most 
curious feeling,’ Mountbatten declared, recalling that period, 
‘that they were all behind me, in a way, against Gandhi. They 
were encouraging me to challenge him, in a sense, on their 

But as Mountbatten well realized, his unpredictable sparrow 
had greater resources at his command than the leaders of the 
Party. He had the Party itself. He had the millions of four-anna 
members who worshipped him and he had, above all, his 
uncommon skill at galvanizing those masses into action. If he 
chose to go over the heads of the politicians and appeal directly 
to India’s masses, he could force a terrible trial of strength 
between the Viceroy, Nehru and Patel on one hand, and his 
own towering spiritual presence on the other. 

Publicly, there had been every indication that he was prepar- 
ing to do just that. On the day Mountbatten’s York had left 
London, carrying the Viceroy and his plan back to India, 
Gandhi had told his evening prayer meeting: ‘Let the whole 
nation be in flames: we will not concede one inch of Pakistan.’ 

Privately, however, the month that had elapsed since the 
decision of the Working Committee had been a period of 
anguish, turmoil and doubt for Gandhi. Every instinct, every 
fibre of his being told him partition was wrong. Yet not only 
did he sense the Congress leadership was drifting away but, 
for almost the first time, he was not sure the masses of India 
were ready to answer his call. 

Walking the streets of Delhi early one morning, one of his 
workers said to him: ‘In the hour of decision you are not in 

198 Freedom at Midnight 

the picture. You and your ideals have been given the go-by.’ 

Yes, Gandhi sighed bitterly in reply: ‘Everybody is eager to 
garland my photos and statues. But nobody wants to follow 
my advice.’ 

A few days later, Gandhi had awakened by mistake at half 
past three, half an hour before his morning prayer. He had 
resumed his practice of sleeping with his great-niece Manu by 
his side. It was a practice he would continue until his death. 
Lying beside his straw pallet on the floor of their New Delhi 
sweepers’ hut, Manu listened as Gandhi had agonized alone 
in the darkness. 

‘Today I find myself alone,’ he said, his voice so low it was 
a whisper to the night. ‘Even Patel and Nehru think I’m wrong 
and peace is sure to return if partition is agreed upon. 

‘They wonder,’ he said, ‘if I have not deteriorated with age.’ 
There was a long pause, then Gandhi sighed and whispered, 
‘Maybe all of them are right and I alone am floundering in 
the darkness.’ 

Again there was a long silence and then Manu heard a last 
phrase slip from his lips. ‘I shall perhaps not be alive to witness 
it,’ he said, ‘but should the evil I apprehend overtake India 
and her independence be imperilled, let posterity know the 
agony this old soul went through thinking of it. 

The ‘old soul’ who uttered these words was to enter the 
Viceroy’s study on 2 June, 90 minutes after the leaders, to give 
voice to the most awaited and most important of all the Indian 
reactions. His presence had hung over every minute of the 
earlier meeting which he had refused to attend because he was 
not himself an officer of Congress. Dreading the words he was 
about to hear, wondering if the unpredictable prompting of 
Gandhi’s Inner Voice would set them on a collision course, 
Mountbatten awaited Gandhi’s arrival. 

Gandhi, for whom punctuality was almost a fetish, entered 
the room precise to the minute as the gold clock on Mount- 
batten’s mantelpiece softly chimed 12.30. 

Mountbatten rose from his desk and walked across thp room 
to greet him, a smile and a hearty welcome on his lips. Then 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

he stopped halfway. Gandhi’s reply was to press the index of 
his right hand to his lips like a mother hushing a child. At 
that sign, a wave of relief, tinged with humour, swept over the 
Viceroy: Thank God,’ he thought, ‘a day of silence!’ 

It was Monday. The voice that might have summoned the 
Indian masses against Mountbatten was stilled as it had been 
every Monday for years in response to one of those Gandhian 
vows, a pledge to observe a day of total silence once a week 
to ease the strains on his vocal chords. Mountbatten would 
not have the answer he so impatiently awaited. 

Gandhi settled into an armchair and drew from under the 
folds of his loincloth a sheaf of dirty, used envelopes and a 
pencil stub barely two inches long. He always refused to waste 
even a scrap of paper. He himself scissored up the envelopes 
in which his mail arrived, turning them into neat little note- 
pads he proceeded to cover from top to bottom with his scrawl. 

When Mountbatten had finished explaining his plan, 
Gandhi licked the lead of his pencil stub and began to set down 
on the back of an old envelope the first enigmatic reaction to 
what were the most important and heart-breaking words he 
would hear during his lifetime. His writing finally covered the 
backs of five old envelopes and when he left Mountbatten 
carefully preserved them for posterity. 

‘I’m sorry I can’t speak,’ Gandhi wrote. ‘When I took the 
decision about the Monday silence I did reserve two excep- 
tions, i.e. about speaking to high functionaries on urgent mat- 
ters or attending upon sick people. But I know you do not 
want me to break my silence. 

‘There are one or two things I must talk about, but not 
today. If we meet each other again, I shall speak.’ 

With that, he left the Viceroy’s study. 

The long corridors of Viceroy’s House were dark and silent. 
Only an occasional white- robed servant off on some errand 
drifted like a ghost down their carpets. In Louis Mountbatten s 
study, however, the lights still burned, illuminating the last 
meeting of his harrowing day. He stared at his visitor with 


Freedom at Midnight 

uncomprehending disbelief. Congress had indicated on time 
their willingness to accept his plan. So, too, had the Sikhs. Now 
the man it was designed to satisfy, the man whose obdurate, 
unyielding will had forced partition on India, was temporizing. 
It was, in a sense, Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s day of silence too. 
Everything Jinnah had been striving for for years was there, 
waiting only his acknowledgement. For some mysterious 
reason, Jinnah simply could not bring himself to utter 
the word he’d made a career of refusing to pronounce - 

Inhaling deeply one of the Craven A’s he chain-smoked in 
his jade holder, Jinnah kept insisting he could not give an 
indication of the Moslem League’s reaction to Mountbatten’s 
plan until he had put it before the League’s Council. He needed 
at least a week to bring its members to Delhi. 

All the frustrations which dealing with Jinnah had generated 
in Mountbatten now welled up. It was incredible. Jinnah had 
got his damned Pakistan. Even the Sikhs had swallowed it. 
Everything he’d been playing for he’d finally got and here, at 
the eleventh hour, he was preparing to destroy it all, to bring 
the whole thing crashing down with his unfathomable inability 
to articulate just one word, ‘yes’. 

Mountbatten simply had to have his agreement. Attlee was 
standing by in London waiting to make his historic announce- 
ment to the Commons in less than 24 hours. He had pledged 
Attlee and his government that this plan would work; that 
there would be no more abrupt twists like that prompted by 
Nehru in Simla; that this time they could be certain they’d 
approved a plan the Indian leaders would all accept. He had 
coaxed a reluctant Congress with enormous difficulty up to 
the point at which, finally, they were prepared to accept par- 
tition. Even Gandhi had temporarily at least allowed himself 
to be bypassed. A final hesitation, the faintest hint that Jinnah 
was manoeuvring to secure one extra concession, and the 
whole carefully wrought package would blow apart. 

‘Mr Jinnah,’ Mountbatten said, ‘if you think I can hold this 
position for a week while you summon your followers to Delhi, 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

you must be crazy. You know this has been drawn out till we 
are at boiling point. 

‘You've got your Pakistan, which at one time no one in the 
world thought you'd get. I know you call it moth-eaten, but 
it's Pakistan. Now all depends on your agreeing tomorrow 
along with everyone else. The Congress has made their accept- 
ance dependent on your agreement. If they suspect you're 
holding out on them they will immediately withdraw their 
agreement and we will be in the most terrible mess.' 

No, no, Jinnah protested that everything had to be done in 
the legally constituted way. T am not the Moslem League,’ he 

‘Now, now Mr Jinnah, come on,’ said Mountbatten, icily 
calm despite his growing frustration, ‘don't try to tell me that. 
You can try and tell the world that, but please don't try to kid 
yourself that I don’t know who’s who and what's what in the 
Moslem League!' 

No, stone-walled Jinnah, everything had to be done in the 
proper way. 

‘Mr Jinnah,’ said Mountbatten, ‘I'm going to tell you some- 
thing. I don't intend to let you wreck your own plan. I can't 
allow you to throw away the solution you've worked so hard 
to get. I propose to accept on your behalf. 

‘Tomorrow at the meeting,’ Mountbatten continued, ‘I shall 
say I have received the reply of the Congress with a few reser- 
vations that I am sure I can satisfy and they have accepted. 
The Sikhs have accepted. 

‘Then I shall say that I had a very long, very friendly conver- 
sation with Mr Jinnah last night, that we went through the 
plan in detail and Mr Jinnah has given me his personal assur- 
ance that he is in agreement with this plan. 

‘Now at that point, Mr Jinnah,' Mountbatten continued, ‘I 
shall turn to you. I don't want you to speak. I don't want 
Congress to force you into the open. I want you to do only 
one thing. I want you to nod your head to show that you are 
in agreement with me. 

‘If you don’t nod your head, Mr Jinnah,' Mountbatten 


Freedom at Midnight 

concluded, ‘then you're through, and there'll be nothing more 
I can do for you. Everything will collapse. This is not a threat. 
It's a prophecy. If you don’t nod your head at that moment, 
my usefulness here will be ended, you will have lost your 
Pakistan, and as far as I am concerned, you can go to hell.’ 

The meeting which would formally record the Indian leaders’ 
acceptance of the Mountbatten plan to divide India began 
exactly as Mountbatten had said it would. Once again the 
Viceroy condemned the leaders to an unfamiliar silence by 
dominating the conversation himself and, in a sense, speaking 
for them. As he had expected he said, all three parties had had 
grave reservations about his plan and he was grateful they had 
aired them to him. Nonetheless, Congress had signified its 
acceptance. So, too, had the Sikhs. He had had, he said, a long 
and friendly conversation the previous evening with Mr Jinnah 
who had assured him the plan was acceptable. 

As he spoke those words, Mountbatten turned to Jinnah 
seated at his right. At that instant Mountbatten had absolutely 
no idea what the Moslem leader was going to do. The captain 
of the Kelly, the supreme commander who had had an entire 
Army Corps encircled and cut off by the Japanese on the 
Imphal Plain, would always look back on that instant as ‘the 
most hair-raising moment of my entire life’. For an endless 
second, he stared into Jinnah’s impassive, expressionless face. 
Then, slowly, reluctance crying from every pore, Jinnah indi- 
cated his agreement with the faintest, most begrudging nod 
he could make. His chin moved barely half an inch downward, 
the shortest distance it could have travelled consonant with 
accepting Mountbatten’s plan. 

With that brief, almost imperceptible gesture, a nation of 45 
million human beings had received its final sanction. However 
misshapen, however difficult the circumstances that would 
attend its birth, the ‘impossible dream’ of Pakistan would at 
last be realized. Mountbatten had enough agreement to go 
ahead. Before any of the seven men could have a chance to 
formulate a last reservation or doubt, he announced that his 

A Day Cursed by the Stars 203 

plan would henceforth constitute the basis for an Indian 

While the enormity of the decision they had just taken began 
to sink in, Mountbatten, with a pre-arranged gesture, had a 
34-page, single-spaced document set before each man. Clasping 
the last copy himself with both hands, the Viceroy lifted it 
over his head and whipped it back down on to the table. 
At the sharp crack that followed the slap of paper on wood 
Mountbatten read out the imposing title on his equally 
imposing document: ‘The Administrative Consequences of 

It was a carefully elaborated christening present from 
Mountbatten and his staff to the Indian leaders, a guide to 
the awesome task that now lay before them. Page after page, 
it summarized in its dull bureaucratic jargon the appalling 
implications of their decision. None of the seven was in even 
the remotest way prepared for the shocks he encountered as 
he began to turn the pages. Ahead lay a problem of a scope 
and on a scale no people had ever encountered before, a prob- 
lem vast enough to beggar the most vivid imagination. They 
were now going to be called upon to unravel the web left 
behind by three centuries of common habitation of the sub- 
continent, to take to bits the product of three centuries of 
technology. The cash in the banks; stamps in the post offices; 
books in the libraries; debts; assets; the world’s third largest 
railway; jails; prisoners; inkpots; brooms; research centres; hos- 
pitals; universities; institutions; articles staggering in number 
and variety would be theirs to divide. 

A stunned silence filled the study as the seven men measured 
for the first time what lay ahead of them. Mountbatten had 
carefully stage-managed the scene and their reaction was 
exactly what he had hoped it would be. It would, he later told 
his staff, have been amusing had it not been for the gravity of 
the hour. He had forced these seven men to grips with a 
problem so imposing that its resolution, he could'feel certain, 
would leave them neither the time nor the energy for recrimi- 
nations in the few weeks of cohabitation left to them. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Gandhi received the news of the decision as he was having a 
footbath after his evening walk. While one of his female dis- 
ciples massaged his feet with a stone, another burst in with an 
account of the Viceroy’s second meeting with the leaders. Sor- 
row seemed to spread like a stain over his pinched features as 
she talked. ‘May God protect them and grant them all wisdom,’ 
he sighed when she’d finished. 

Shortly after seven o’clock on that evening of 3 June 1947, 
in the New Delhi studio of All India Radio, the four key leaders 
formally announced their agreement to divide the sub- 
continent into two separate, sovereign nations. 

As befitted his office, Mountbatten spoke first. His words 
were confident, his speech brief, his tones understated. Nehru 
followed speaking in Hindi. Sadness grasped the Indian leader’s 
face as he told his listeners, ‘The great destiny of India’, was 
taking shape, ‘with travail and suffering’. Baring his own emo- 
tions, he urged acceptance of the plan which had caused him 
such deep personal anguish by concluding ‘it is with no joy 
in my heart that I commend these proposals to you.’ 

Jinnah was next. Nothing would ever be more illustrative 
of the enormous yet wholly incongruous nature of his achieve- 
ment than that speech. Mohammed Ali Jinnah was incapable 
of announcing to his followers in a language that they could 
understand the news that he had won them a state. He had 
to tell India’s Moslems of the ‘momentous decision’ to create 
an Islamic state on the sub-continent in English, concluding 
with the words ‘ Pakistan ZitidabacT .* An announcer then read 
his words in Urdu. 

The prophet of non-violence got his voice back the day follow- 
ing the leaders’ acceptance of the Viceroy’s plan. The brief 
respite accorded Mountbatten by his day of silence was over. 
Shortly after noon on 4 June, Mountbatten received an urgent 

A number of his listeners failed to understand that final shift from English 
to Urdu and thought Jinnah had cried: ‘Pakistan’s in the bag!’ 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

communication: Gandhi was preparing to break with the Con- 
gress leadership and denounce the plan at his evening prayer 
meeting. Mountbatten immediately sent an emissary to Gandhi 
inviting him to come to see him. 

Gandhi walked into Mountbatten’s study at 6 p.m. His 
prayer meeting was at seven. That left Mountbatten less than 
an hour in which to ward off a potential disaster. His first 
glance at the Mahatma told Mountbatten how deeply upset 
he was. Crumpled up in his armchair ‘like a bird with a broken 
wing’, Gandhi kept raising and dropping one hand, lamenting 
in an almost inaudible voice, ‘It’s so awful, it’s so awful.’ 

In that state Gandhi, Mountbatten knew, was capable of 
anything. A public denunciation of his plan would be disas- 
trous. Nehru, Patel and the other leaders would be forced to 
break publicly with Gandhi or to break their agreement with 
him. Vowing to use every argument his fertile imagination 
could produce, Mountbatten began by telling Gandhi how he 
understood and shared his feelings at seeing the united India 
he’d worked for all his life destroyed by his plan. 

Suddenly as he spoke an inspiration struck him. The news- 
papers had christened the plan the ‘Mountbatten Plan’ he said, 
but they should have called it the ‘Gandhi Plan’. It was Gandhi, 
Mountbatten declared, who had suggested to him all its major 
ingredients. The Mahatma looked at him perplexed. 

Yes, Mountbatten continued, Gandhi had told him to leave 
the choice to the Indian people and this the plan did. It was the 
provincial, popularly elected assemblies, which could decide 
India’s future. Each province’s assembly would vote on 
whether it wished to join India or Pakistan. Gandhi had urged 
the British to quit India as soon as possible. Dominion status 
was going to accomplish that. 

‘If by some miracle the assemblies vote for unity,’ Mount- 
batten told Gandhi, ‘you have what you want. If they don’t 
agree, I’m sure you don’t want us to oppose their decision by 
force of arms.’ 

Reasoning, pleading, employing all his famous charm and 
magnetism on the elderly man opposite him, Mountbatten 

206 Freedom at Midnight 

put his case, as one of Gandhi’s intimates later noted, ‘with a 
skill, persuasiveness and flair for salesmanship which the 
author of How to Win Friends and Influence People might have 
envied’. Gandhi was still vehemently opposed to partition, yet 
he was shaken by the Viceroy’s vigorous plea. Approaching 
78, for the first time in 30 years Gandhi was uncertain of his 
grip on India’s masses, at odds with the leaders of his party. 
In his despair and uncertainty, he was still searching in his 
soul for an answer, still waiting for an illuminating whisper 
of the Inner Voice that had guided him in so many of the 
grave crises of his career. That June evening, however, the voice 
was silent and Gandhi remained assailed by doubt. Should he 
remain faithful to his instincts, denounce partition, even at 
the price of plunging India into violence and chaos? Or should 
he listen to the Viceroy’s desperate plea? 

Mountbatten had not finished presenting his case when the 
time came for Gandhi to leave. He excused himself because, 
he told Mountbatten, he never allowed himself to be late for 
a prayer meeting. 

Less than an hour later, cross-legged on a raised platform 
in a dirt square in the midst of his Untouchables, Gandhi 
delivered his verdict. Many in the crowd before him had come, 
not to pray, but to hear from the lips of the prophet of non- 
violence a call to arms, a fiery assault on Mountbatten’s plan. 
No such cry would come this evening from the mouth of the 
man who had so often promised to offer his own body for 
vivisection rather than accept his country’s division. 

It was no use blaming the Viceroy for partition, he said. 
Look to yourselves and in your own hearts for an explanation 
of what has happened. Louis Mountbatten’s persuasiveness 
had won him the ultimate and most difficult triumph of his 

As for Gandhi, many an Indian would never forgive him 
his silence, and the frail old man whose heart still ached for 
India’s coming division would one day pay the price of their 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

Never had the handsome chamber built to shelter the debates 
of India’s legislators seen a performance to rival it. Speaking 
without notes, with an authority and clarity that awed even 
his most virulent critics, Louis Mountbatten revealed to Indian 
and world opinion the details of one of the most important 
birth certificates in history, the complex plan which would 
serve as the precursor of a new assembly of the peoples of the 

planet, the Third World. . . , 

It was the second time in the history of Britain s Indian 
Empire that a Viceroy gave a press conference. It was also the 
last. Three hundred journalists, correspondents of the USSR, 
US, China and Europe, mixed with the representatives of 
India’s press, a regional, religious and linguistic mosaic of 
journals, all following with extraordinary intentness the mono- 
logue of the Viceroy. 

For Louis Mountbatten the press conference was the apothe- 
osis, the final consecration of a remarkable tour de force. In 
barely two months, virtually a one-man band, he had achieved 
the impossible, established a dialogue with India’s leaders, set 
the basis of an agreement, persuaded his Indian interlocutors 
to accept it, extracted the wholehearted support of both the 
government and the opposition in London. He had skirted 
with dexterity and a little luck around the pitfalls barring his 
route. And as his final gesture he had entered the cage of the 
old lion himself, convinced Churchill to draw in his claws and 
left him, too, murmuring his approbation. 

Mountbatten concluded his talk to a burst of applause and 
opened the floor to questions. He had no apprehension in 
doing so. ‘I had been there,’ he would recall later. ‘I was the 
only one who had been through it all, who’d lived every 
moment of it. For the first time the press were meeting the 
one and only man who had the whole thing at his fingertips. 

Suddenly, when the long barrage of questions began to 
trickle out, the anonymous voice of an Indian newsman cut 
across the chamber. His was the last question awaiting an 
answer. It was the last square left for Mountbatten to fill in 
in the puzzle he’d been assigned six months before. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Sir, the voice said, if all agree that there is most urgent 
need for speed between today and the Transfer of Power, surely 
you should have a date in mind?’ 

‘Yes, indeed,’ replied Mountbatten. 

‘And if you have chosen a date. Sir, what then is that date?’ 
pressed the questioner. 

A number of rapid calculations went whirring through the 
Viceroy’s mind as he listened to those, questions. He had not, 
in fact, picked a date. But he was convinced it had to be very 

‘I had to force the pace,’ he recalled later. ‘I knew I had to 
force parliament to get the bill through before their summer 
recess to hold the thing together. We were sitting on the edge 
of a volcano, on a fused bomb, and we didn’t know when the 
fuse would go off.’ Like the blurred images of a horror film, the 
charred corpses of Kahuta flashed across Louis Mountbatten’s 
mind. If an outburst of similar tragedies was not to drag all 
India into an apocalypse, he had to go fast. After 3000 years 
of history, 200 of Pax Britannica, only a few weeks remained, 
the Viceroy believed, between India and chaos. 

He stared at the packed assembly hall. Every face in the 
room was turned to his. A hushed, expectant silence broken 
only by the whirr of the wooden blades of the fans revolving 
overhead stilled the room. ‘I was determined to show I was 
the master of the whole event,’ he would remember. 

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have selected a date for the Transfer of 

As he was uttering those words, the possible dates were still 
whizzing through his mind like the numbers on a spinning 
roulette wheel. Early September? Mid-September? Mid- 
August? Suddenly the wheel stopped with a jar and the little 
ball popped into a slot so overwhelmingly appropriate that 
Mountbatten’s decision was instantaneous. It was a date linked 
in his memory to the most triumphant hours of his own 
existence, the day in which his long crusade through the jungles 
of Burma had ended with the unconditional surrender of the 
Japanese Empire. What more appropriate date for the birth 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

of the new democratic Asia than the second anniversary of 
Japan’s surrender? 

His voice constricted with sudden emotion, the victor of 
the jungles of Burma about to become the liberator of India 

‘The final Transfer of Power to Indian hands will take place 
on 15 August 1947.’ 

Louis Mountbatten’s spontaneous decision to announce the 
date of Indian independence on his own initiative was a bomb- 
shell. In the corridors of the House of Commons, Downing 
Street, Buckingham Palace, no one had suspected Mountbatten 
was ready to ring the curtain down so precipitously on Britain’s 
Indian adventure. In Delhi, the Viceroy’s most intimate collab- 
orators had no inkling of what Mountbatten was going to do. 
Not even the Indian leaders with whom he had spent so many 
hours had received a hint that he would act with such decisive 

Nowhere, however, did his choice of the date of 15 August 
for India’s independence cause as much surprise and conster- 
nation as it did in the ranks of a corporation which ruled the 
lives of millions of Hindus with a tyranny more oppressive 
than that of English, Congress and maharajas combined. 
Mountbatten had committed the unpardonable fault of 
announcing his choice without first having consulted represen- 
tatives of the most powerful occult body in India, the jyotishis , 
the astrologers. 

No people in the world were as subservient to their authority 
and rulings as the Indians. Nowhere did their competence 
extend into so many domains. Every maharaja, every temple, 
every village had one or two astrologers who ruled like little 
dictators over the community and its inhabitants. Millions of 
Indians wouldn’t dream of setting out on a trip, receiving a 
guest, signing a contract, going hunting, putting on a new suit, 
buying a new jewel, cutting a moustache, marrying a daughter 
or even having their own funerals arranged, without prior 
consultation with an astrologer. 

210 Freedom at Midnight 

Discerning the divine order of things in their reading of 
their celestial charts, the astrologers claimed for themselves a 
power that made them masters of millions of lives. Children 
whom they proclaimed were born under an unlucky star were 
often abandoned by their parents. Men elected to commit 
suicide at the hour they announced the conjunction of the 
planets was particularly favourable to the act. They laid down 
which days of a given week would be auspicious, and which 
would not. Sunday was inevitably an inauspicious day; so, too, 
was Friday. Anybody in India could have discovered with the 
aid of a chart no more occult than a calendar that in 1947, 15 
August happened to fell on a Friday. 

As soon as the radio announced Mountbatten’s date, astro- 
logers all over India began to consult their charts. Those in 
the holy city of Benares and several others in the south immedi- 
ately proclaimed 15 August a date so inauspicious that India 
‘would be better advised to tolerate the British one day longer 
rather than risk eternal damnation’. 

In Calcutta, Swamin Madamanand rushed to his celestial 
charts as soon as he heard the date announced. He took out 
his navamansh , an enormous circular chart composed of a 
succession of concentric circles on which were plotted the days 
and months of the year, the cycles of the sun and moon, the 
planets, the signs of Zodiac and the positions of the 27 stars 
influencing the destiny of the earth. At its centre was a map 
of the world. He twisted the circles on his chart until they 
were all set for the fifteenth of August. Then, from a map of 
India in the chart’s core, he began to draw a series of lines 
out towards the edge of his wheel. As he did so, he sat up 
aghast. His calculations foretold disaster. India on 15 August 
would lie under the Zodiacal sign of Makara, Capricorn, a 
sign one of whose particularities was its unrelenting hostility 
to all centrifugal forces, hence to partition. Far worse, that day 
would be passed under the influence of Saturn, a notably 
inauspicious planet, dominated by Rahu, scornfully labelled 
by astrologers ‘the star with no neck’, a celestial body whose 
manifestations were almost wholly malign. From midnight, 14 


A Day Cursed by the Stars 

August throughout 15 August, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus would 
all lie in the most accursed site of the heavens, the ninth house 
of Karamstahn. Like thousands of his colleagues, the young 
astrologer looked up from his chart overcome by the magni- 
tude of the disaster they had revealed. ‘What have they done? 
What have they done?’ he shouted to the heavens whose machi- 
nations he interpreted for man. 

Despite the discipline acquired in years of yoga, meditation 
and Tantric studies in a temple in the hills of Assam, the 
astrologer lost control of himself. Seizing a piece of paper he 
sat down and wrote an urgent appeal to the man inadvertently 
responsible for this celestial catastrophe. 

‘For the love of God,’ he wrote to Louis Mountbatten, ‘do 
not give India her independence on 15 August. If floods, 
drought, famine and massacres follow, it will be because free 
India was born on a day cursed by the stars.’ 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 


New Delhi y June 194 7 

Never before had anything even remotely like it been 
attempted. Nowhere were there any guide lines, any prece- 
dents, any revealing insights from the past to order what was 
going to be the biggest, the most complex divorce action in 
history, the break-up of a family of 400 million human 
beings along with the assets and household property they’d 
acquired in centuries of living together on the same piece of 

There were exactly 73 days before 15 August in which to 
draw up the divorce papers. To keep everybody concerned 
working under constant, unrelenting pressure, Mount- 
batten had printed a rip-off day to day calendar which he 
ordered displayed in offices everywhere in Delhi. Like a count- 
down to an explosion, a large red square in the middle of each 
page of the calendar registered the number of days left to 
15 August. 

The responsibility for preparing the gigantic, unimaginably 
complicated property settlement accompanying the Indian di- 
vorce fell ultimately on two men, the lawyers in a sense for 
the contending parties. They were, appropriately, a pair of 
bureaucrats, superb specimens of what was, if not the finest, 
at least the most luxuriant flower of a century of British rule 
in India. 

They lived in almost identical government bungalows, drove 
to their offices located only doors apart in pre-war American 
Chevrolets, earned the same salary and paid with equal fidelity 
their monthly contributions to the same retirement fund. One 
was a Hindu. The other was a Moslem. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

Every day from June to August, with their despatch boxes, 
their neat handwritten stacks of files, each knotted firmly by 
its twists of red ribbon, with only the orderly thought processes 
and sound procedures taught by their British tutors to guide 
them, Chaudhuri Mohammed Ali, the Moslem, and H. M. 
Patel, the Hindu, laboured to divide the goods and chattels of 
their countrymen. As a final irony, they parcelled out the bits 
and pieces of India in the language of their colonizers, English. 
Over a hundred bureaucrats, working in a score of committees 
and sub-committees, submitted reports to them. Their recom- 
mendations went in turn for final approval to a Partition 
Council chaired by the Viceroy. 

At the outset, Congress claimed the most precious asset of 
all, the name ‘India’. Rejecting a proposal to name their new 
dominion ‘Hindustan’, Congress insisted that, since Pakistan 
was seceding, the name India and India’s identity in groups 
like the UN remain theirs. 

As in most divorce cases, the bitterest arguments between 
the two parties came over money. The most important sums 
were represented by the debt Britain would be leaving behind. 
After having been accused for decades of exploiting India, 
Britain was going to wind up her Indian adventure five billion 
dollars in debt to her supposed victims. That enormous sum 
had been run up during the war, part of the crippling price 
Britain had had to pay for the victory which had left her 
bankrupt and hastened the great historical process now 

In addition, there were the liquid assets to be divided, the 
cash in the state banks, the gold ingots in the vault of the 
Bank of India, everything down to the few soiled rupees 
and the frayed postage stamps in the petty cash box of the 
District Commissioner in his hut among the head-hunting 
Naga tribes. 

So intractable did that problem prove that it was not solved 
until H. M. Patel and Mohammed Ali were locked up in Sardar 
Patel’s bedroom and told to stay there until they’d reached an 
agreement. Haggling like pedlars in the Lahore bazaar, they 


Freedom at Midnight 

finally agreed that Pakistan would get i7 J /2% of the cash in the 
bank and the sterling balances and in return cover 17^6% of 
India’s national debt. 

The two men also recommended that the moveable assets 
in India’s vast administrative machine should be divided up 
80% to India, 20% to Pakistan. All across India, government 
offices began to count up their chairs, tables, brooms and 
typewriters. Some of the resulting tabulations were particularly 
poignant. They showed, for example, that the entire physical 
resources of the Food and Agricultural Department of the 
most famine-haunted country on the globe consisted of 425 
clerks’ tables, 85 large tables, 85 officers’ chairs, 850 ordinary 
chairs, 50 hat-pegs, 6 hat-pegs with mirrors, 130 bookshelves, 
4 iron safes, 20 table lamps, 170 typewriters, 120 fans, 120 clocks, 
110 bicycles, 600 inkstands, 3 staff cars, 2 sets of sofas and 40 
chamber pots. 

Arguments, even fights, broke out over the division of the 
goods. Departmental heads tried to hide their best typewriters 
or to substitute their broken desks and chairs for new ones 
assigned to their rival community. Some offices became souks 
with dignified men, joint secretaries in linen suits whose writ 
ran over hundreds of thousands of people, bargaining an 
inkpot against a water jar, an umbrella rack for a hat-peg, 125 
pin cushions for a chamber pot. The arguments over the dishes, 
the silverware, the portraits in state residences were ferocious. 
One item however, escaped discussion. Wine cellars always 
went to Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan received a credit 
for what they contained. 

The meanness, the petty mindedness those divisions some- 
times produced were staggering. In Lahore, Superintendent of 
Police Patrick Rich divided his equipment between a Moslem 
and a Hindu deputy. He split up everything: leggings, turbans, 
rifles, lathi staves. The last lot consisted of the instruments in 
the police band. Rich split them up, a flute for Pakistan, a 
drum for India, a trumpet for Pakistan, a pair of cymbals for 
India until one instrument, a trombone, wa > left. Before his 
unbelieving eyes his two deputies, who’d \>een comrades for 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

years, got into a fight over which dominion would get that 
last trombone. 

Days were spent arguing about who should pay the pensions 
of widows of seamen lost at sea. Would Pakistan be expected 
to pay all Moslem widows wherever they were? Would India 
pay Hindu widows in Pakistan? Pakistan would wind up with 
4913 miles of India’s 18,077 miles of roads and 7112 miles of 
her 26,421 miles of railway tracks. Should the bulldozers, wheel- 
barrows and shovels of the highway department and the loco- 
motives, coaches and freight wagons of the railways be divided 
according to the 80/20 rule or the percentage of the track and 
road mileage each nation would have? 

Some of the bitterest arguments came over the books in 
India’s libraries. Sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica were 
religiously divided up, alternate volumes to each dominion. 
Dictionaries were ripped in half with A to K going to India, 
the rest to Pakistan. Where only one copy of a book was 
available, the librarians were supposed to decide which 
dominion would have the greater natural interest in it. Some 
of those supposedly intelligent men actually came to blows 
arguing over which dominion had a greater natural interest 
in Alice in Wonderland or Wuthering Heights. 

Certain things simply could not be divided. The Home 
Department noted with laconic foresight that ‘the responsibili- 
ties of the existing intelligence bureau are not likely to decrease 
with the division of the country’ and its officers stubbornly 
refused to yield up so much as a file or an inkpot to Pakistan. 

There was only one press on the sub-continent capable of 
printing two of the indispensable insignias of national identity, 
postage stamps and currency. The Indians refused to share it 
with their future neighbours. As a result, thousands of Mos- 
lems had to manufacture a provisional currency for their new 
state by stamping huge piles of Indian rupee notes with a 
rubber-stamp marked ‘Pakistan’. 

Inevitably India’s ancient ills found a reflection in the div- 
ision of her assets. East Bengal, destined for Pakistan, would 
be short of 70,000 tons of rice and 30,000 tons of wheat in 


Freedom at Midnight 

1947 • The Moslems begged the Indian government for the 
return of the 11,000 tons of surplus rice which their western 
province of Sind had already sent to Delhi. They did not get 
it, not because of Hindu meanness but for a reason sadly 
consistent with the reality of India. It had already been eaten. 

Beyond the bureaucrats, there were the extremists with their 
claims. The Moslems wanted the Taj Mahal broken up and 
shipped to Pakistan because it had been built by a Moghul. 
Hindu saddhus insisted that the Indus River, flowing through 
the heart of Moslem India, should somehow be theirs because 
their sacred Vedas had been written on its banks 25 centuries 

Neither dominion displayed the faintest reluctance to grasp 
after the gaudiest symbols of the imperial power which had 
ruled them for so long. The gold and white viceregal train 
whose majestic silhouette had crossed the parched plains of 
the Deccan went to India. The private cars of the Commander- 
in-Chief of the Indian Army and the Governor of the Punjab 
were assigned to Pakistan. 

The most remarkable division of all, however, took place 
in the stable yards of Viceroy’s House. At issue were twelve 
horse-drawn carriages. With their ornate, hand-wrought gold 
and silver designs, their glittering harnesses, their scarlet 
cushions, they embodied all the pretentious pomp, all the 
majestic disdain, that had both fascinated and infuriated the 
Raj’s Indian subjects. Every Viceroy, every visiting sovereign, 
every royal dignitary passing through India in modern times 
had promenaded through the Raj’s capital in one of them. 
They were the formal, viceregal carriages, six of them trimmed 
in gold, six semi-state carriages in silver. To break up the sets 
had seemed a tragedy; one dominion, it was decided, would 
get the gold carriages, the other would have to settle for the 

Mountbatten’s ADC, Lt-Cmdr. Peter Howes, proposed that 
the question of which dominion would get which set of those 
regal vehicles should be settled by a profoundly plebeian ges- 
ture, the flip of a coin. Beside him. Major Yacoub Khan, newly 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

appointed commander of the Pakistan bodyguard, and Major 
Govind Singh, the commander of the Viceroy’s bodyguard, 
watched as the silver piece went glittering up in the air. 

‘Heads!’ shouted Govind Singh. 

The coin clattered on to the stable yard. The three men 
stooped to look at it. A whoop escaped from the Sikh major. 
Luck had decided that the gold carriages of India’s imperial 
rulers might convey the leaders of a new, socialist India 
through the streets of their capital. 

Howes then divided up the harnesses, the whips, the 
coachmen’s boots, wigs and uniforms that went with each set 
of carriages. When he reached the end of that stack of equip- 
ment a last item remained. It was the Viceroy’s Post Horn, 
the flaring horn used by the coachman to guide his horses. In 
all the viceregal establishment there was only one such horn. 

The young naval officer pondered a minute. Obviously, if 
the horn was broken in two, it would never emit another 
sound. He could, of course, flip a coin again. Suddenly Howes 
had a better idea. 

He held it up to his colleagues. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you 
can’t divide this. I think there’s only one solution. I’ll have to 
keep it.’ 

With a smile, Howes tucked the horn under his arm and 
sauntered out of the stable yard. 

It was not just the books, bank notes, and bureaucrats’ chairs 
which had to be sorted out and divided up in those frantic 
summer weeks. So, too, did hundreds of thousands of human 
beings, members of the vast army of India’s public employees 
from railroad presidents and junior ministers to sweepers, 
errand boys, bearers and babus, those infuriating, petty- 
minded clerks who grew like weeds through India’s adminis- 
tration. Each was given the choice of serving India or Pakistan. 
Then, separated into human piles, they were shunted off to 
one dominion or the other. 

The most painful division of all, however, involved 1.2 mil- 
lion Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems and Englishmen assembled in 

218 Freedom at Midnight 

the proudest institution Britain had produced in India, the 
Indian Army. 

Mountbatten had pleaded with Jinnah to leave the army 
intact for a year under a British Supreme Commander respon- 
sible to both India and Pakistan as the best guarantor of the 
sub-continent’s peace in the troubled weeks sure to follow 
partition. Jinnah had refused: an army was the indispensable 
attribute of a nation’s sovereignty. He wanted Pakistan’s in 
being, inside its borders, by 15 August. Carved up two thirds 
to India, one third to Pakistan, the men of the Indian Army, 
along with everything else on the sub-continent, would have 
to be divided and a great legend laid to rest. 

The Indian Army: the words alone were enough to conjure 
up the old, romantic images: Gunga Din, Gentlemen Rankers 
off on a spree, the Road to Mandalay, the Night Runners of 
Bengal, White Feathers, and Gary Cooper urging his Bengal 
Lancers up a rocky defile. For generations of English school- 
boys, stuck in unheated classrooms, their eyes looking out on 
some forlorn, rainswept heath, the names of its regiments, 
Skinner’s and Hodson’s and Probyn’s Horse, the ‘Piffers’ of 
the Frontier Force Rifles, the First Sikhs, the Rajputana Rifles, 
the Guides Cavalry, were synonymous with glory and 

It had epitomized the Victorian ideal of India better than 
anything else: dark, plucky soldiers staunchly loyal to their 
distant Empress, led by doughty young Englishmen, gentlemen 
all, steady under the Pathan’s fire, good at games, stern but 
devoted fathers to their men, chaps who could hold their liquor 
in the mess. Its deeds, the exploits of its heroes, were the stuff 
of the British Indian legend. 

There were the sepoys, Indian infantry men, at the siege of 
Arcot offering their British officers their last rice because they 
knew better how to endure the agonies of starvation; the 
Guides, galloping down to Delhi to assault the mutineers in 
1857; the 6th Gurkhas swarming up the ridge from which the 
Turks dominated the beaches of Gallipoli; the 11th Prince 
Albert Victor’s own Cavalry, the 2nd Royal Lancers, and the 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

18th Lancers stemming the rush of Rommel’s armour at Meikili 
in the Western Desert, spurning the Field-Marshal’s call to 
surrender, and perhaps saving all Egypt by their stand. 

The army had begun as a collection of private armies at the 
service of the East India Company. Its early chieftains were 
free-booting mercenaries who raised their private forces, then 
hired them out to the Company. The passage of time placed 
a certain aura about their names: many had, in fact, been 
avaricious, brutal louts principally interested in the accumula- 
tion of wealth. William Hodson, the founder of Hodson’s 
Horse, was a hard-drinking, sadistic, personally courageous 
man who made his fortune by falsifying his mess accounts and 
borrowing large sums of money he had no intention of repay- 
ing from the wealthy Indian subalterns whom he recruited to 
his colours. When one of them, in the company of a young 
son, was foolish enough to present himself at Hodson’s door 
to enquire about the repayment of a loan, Hodson discharged 
his debt with a pistol, killing both the officer and his boy. He 
died trying to relieve the besieged Residence at Lucknow on 
n March 1858. His awed fellows set him under a tombstone 
that noted: ‘Here lieth all that could die of William Steven 
Raikes Hodson, Commandant of Hodson’s Horse.’ 

That Mutiny changed the nature of the Army as it changed 
almost everything else in India. With the changes, its real saga 
began. For the next 75 years, the Indian Army syphoned off 
the best products of Sandhurst, the intense, ambitious sons of 
the middle and upper-middle classes, determined to make a 
career at arms but unable to afford the good British regiments 
in which an officer could not keep up in the mess on his pay 
alone. While the pampered sons of the rich went off to the 
Guards to become amateur soldiers, the bright young men at 
the top of the class went out to India where life was cheaper, 
and the pay 50% higher, to become professionals. 

While the British Army paraded and drilled through the 
long years of the Pax Britannica, the Indian Army fought. It. 
fought almost incessantly along the passes and peaks of the 
Frontier, at Landi Kotal and up and down the Khyber. It 


Freedom at Midnight 

was desolate, forbidding terrain, serrated ridges, rocky slopes, 
barren valleys with hardly a bush for cover, scorched by the 
sun in summer, swept by wild, freezing rains in winter. The 
enemy was cruel, Pathans like the Wazirs and Mahsouds, who 
finished off their wounded prisoners with their knives. 

But the Pathan was a brave enemy, clever and cunning, and 
his British foes extended him the begrudging admiration due 
to the member of a ‘good side’. Those Frontier wars were a 
kind of deadly game, fought to cruel rules but still infused 
with a touch of the playing fields of Eton. Its actions were small 
scale, an officer and a few men manning a picket, securing a 
hilltop. They placed a premium on courage, personal leader- 
ship, resourcefulness and initiative, and required a close, trust- 
ing relationship between officers and men. 

If a young officer’s life was gruelling during Frontier cam- 
paigns, back in quarters it was led with style and panache. 
Given the abundance of servants in India, the low cost of 
living, the special privileges accorded the army, it was easy for 
those young men to live like the gentlemen they were supposed 
to be. ‘Pug’ Ismay, Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff, recalled his 
arrival in his regimental mess as a young subaltern exhausted 
by a hot and dirty trip across half India. His future brother 
officers ‘in our magnificent mess kit of scarlet, dark blue and 
gold’ sat around the table, a servant behind each ‘in spotless 
white muslin with belts of the regimental colours and the 
regimental crest in their turbans’. 

Two or three bowls of red roses and a few pieces of 
superbly-cleaned silver’, reposed on the immaculate linen 
tablecloth, and over the mantelpiece of the fireplace was an 
oil of the regiment’s Royal Colonel-in-Chief and, on the walls, 
‘the heads of tigers, leopards, markhor and ibex’. 

It was an era when army officers dressed like figures from 
an operetta. The ‘Yellowboys’ of Skinner’s Horse wore apricot 
mess kits. Others wore scarlet and gold, azure, mint green and 
silver. Once a month, each regiment held its ‘Dining In’ night, 
a formal, ceremonial banquet. On his first such occasion, a 
newly arrived officer was expected to drink himself to a stupor. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

then show up for morning parade at six o’clock. A trumpet 
call usually opened those banquets, and all gold braid and 
polished boots, the officers marched into their mess behind 
their colonel. 

There in the candlelight, before a table loaded with crystal, 
flowers and glistening silver, they ate meals as fine as any in 
India. When the last dish was cleared, a decanter of port was 
brought out and passed clockwise around the table from the 
colonel. Any breach of that tradition was considered an ill 
omen. Three toasts proposed by the colonel commanding 
invariably followed: the King Emperor, the Viceroy, the regi- 
ment. In the 7th Cavalry, the commanding officer flipped his 
glass over his shoulder after each toast. Behind him, stern and 
expressionless, eyes forward, the mess sergeant waited to crush 
the shards of each under his right heel as he banged his boot 
down to attention. The messes of the army were well stocked 
with whisky, claret and champagne, all accessible to an officer 
with his signature on a chit, and the man to avoid at all costs, 
one army chronicler noted, was ‘a brother officer who drank 
water at Mess’. 

Each regiment’s most precious possession was its silver, an 
assortment of trophies which were its unwritten history. Often 
a new officer joining its ranks presented the mess with a piece 
inscribed with his name and the date of his arrival. Others 
marked a regiment’s triumphs on the polo or cricket grounds, 
or celebrated its exploits on the battlefield. A tradition went 
with each piece. One wide cup of the 7th Cavalry received its 
nickname at a roisterous Dining In night in the thirties. Like 
drunken undergraduates, the regiment’s lieutenants had clam- 
bered on to their mess table that night and gleefully urinated 
in unison into the cup. Unable to contain the out-pouring of 
their champagne-swollen bladders, it had been immediately 
dubbed ‘the Overflow Cup’. 

An officer’s mornings were devoted to drill and soldiering 
but the rest of the day was his. There was one acceptable way 
to use it - at games. Whether at polo, pig-sticking, shooting, 
cricket, hockey or riding to hounds, the young officer was 


Freedom at Midnight 

expected to work off his youthful energies in some healthy 
exercise. It was a discipline akin to a Jesuit seminarian’s cold 
baths because one pleasure was notably absent from that idyllic 
life, sex. The officers of the Indian Army were encouraged not 
to marry until their mid-thirties. Since the Mutiny, Indian 
mistresses were in disfavour and while brothels were con- 
sidered necessary and proper outlets for men, officers and 
gentlemen were not encouraged to patronize them. A hard 
ride on a horse was proposed instead. 

Every officer got two months’ leave a year, but it was easy 
to get far more when the Frontier was quiet. Then the army’s 
young officers went off to hunt panther and tiger in the jungles 
of Central India, the snow leopard, ibex and black bear in the 
foothills of the Himalayas, to fish the tenacious mahseer from 
the quick-flowing streams of Kashmir. Ismay had spent his 
early leaves on a houseboat in Srinagar, his polo ponies teth- 
ered on the bank nearby, flaming lotus flowers on the waters 
around him. When the hot weather came, he moved up to 
Gulmarg at 8000 feet where ‘the polo ground was of real 
English turf and there was a club where we could all meet to 
settle the affairs of the world’. 

They had not solved the affairs of the world, those young 
officers of the Indian Army. But with their rifles trained with 
equal aplomb on the tigers of Bengal or the rebellious tribes of 
India’s tumultuous frontiers, with their barrack-room ballads, 
their burra pegs of whisky, their pugree sun helmets and their 
polo sticks, they had been the proud guardians of history’s' 
greatest empire. 

The First World War began the Army’s second great trans- 
formation. From 1918 on, ten places a year at Sandhurst were 
reserved for Indian cadets. In 1932, an Indian Military Academy 
patterned on Sandhurst was established at Dehra Dun. The 
young Indians those institutions produced were indistinguish- 
able from the British officers on whom they were modelled. 
Above all, the British succeeded in effacing among them the 
communal divisions afflicting their sub-continent and infusing 
them with a common loyalty to army and regiment. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

Expanded to 2.5 million men by i945> the Indian Army 
fought with distinction in World War II in Italy, the Western 
Desert and Burma. Now, one more inevitable by-product ot 
the decision to partition India, the force whose greatest pride 
had been its immunity to communalism, would have to be 

broken up on those very lines.* 

A mimeographed form submitted to each Indian officer ot 
the army early in July was the vehicle of its destruction. It 
requested each man to specify whether he wished to serve in 
the Indian or Pakistan Army. The choice raised no problem 
for the army’s Hindu and Sikh officers; Jinnah did not want 
them in his army and without exception they chose to serve 

In< For those Moslems whose family homes would still be 
located in India after partition, however, that simple sheet of 
paper posed an awful dilemma. Should they walk away from 
their lands, their ancestral homes, often their families, to serve 
the army of a state which claimed their allegiance simply 
because they were Moslem? Or should they remain behind in 
the land to which so many ties bound them, accepting the risk 
that anti-Moslem sentiment would stifle their careers? 

One of those who agonized over his decision was Lt-Col 
Enaith Habibullah, a veteran of El Alamein. Habibullah finally 

* The fraternal spirit inspired by common service in the Indian Army would 
endure, however, through all the troubled years to come. One day, a quarter 
of a century later, after India and Pakistan had faced each other on the 
battlefield for the third time, a group of Pakistan Armoured Corps officers 
sought out a comparable Indian unit to whom to surrender at the end ot 
the Bangladesh war. They finally located an Indian cavalry officer in the bar 
of a newly conquered club. Before accepting their surrender, the Indian 

insisted on standing them a round of drinks. 

Then, when they brought in their unit to lay down their arms, the Indians 
and Pakistanis who’d just finished killing each other in the rice paddies of 
Bengal, organized a round of hockey and football matches. 

The scandalized irregulars of Sheikh Muhjibur Rahman sent a vigorous 
protest to New Delhi. From the office of Indira Gandhi came a sharp message 
to the Indian commander. He was engaged, it reminded him, ‘in war, not 


Freedom at Midnight 

took a week-end leave and went to his family home in Lucknow 
where his father was vice-chancellor of the University and his 
mother a fanatical supporter of Pakistan. 

After lunch, he borrowed his father’s car and drove around 
the streets of Lucknow. He contemplated the homes of his 
ancestors, medieval barons in the kingdom of Oudh, the 
famous Residence still scarred by the shells of the 1857 Mutiny. 
For this my ancestors gave their lives,’ he thought, ‘this is the 
India I dreamt of at school in England and under the shells 
of the Germans on the Western Desert. This is my home, this 
is where I belong. I shall stay.’* 

For Major Yacoub Khan, a young Moslem officer in the 
Viceroy’s bodyguard, the decision was the most important in 
his life. He, too, went to ponder his decision at his family 
home in the princely state of Rampur where his father was 
Prime Minister to his uncle the Nawab. 

Tense with emotion, he rediscovered his family mansion 
next door to his uncle’s sumptuous palace. He had so many 
happy memories of that house: a hundred guests dining off 
his family’s gold service at Christmas; their shoots: the guns 
heading into the jungle on the rolling backs of twenty or 
thirty elephants; the fabulous balls that followed them, a full 
orchestra playing in his uncle’s palace, the long lines of Rolls- 
Royces drawing up to its doors, the champagne flowing. He 
remembered the tents lined with silk and satin cushions and 
exquisite oriental carpets pitched in the midst of the jungle, 
crammed with delicacies for their picnics. He wandered round 
his uncles palace, savouring its heated swimming pool, its 
great banquet hall with oils of Victoria and George V. It was 
another life, he thought, one destined to disappear in the 
Socialist India that would emerge from partition. What place 

Both of Habibullah’s brothers, his sister and brother-in-law went to Paki- 
stan. His mother, the fanatic Jinnahite, however, remained in India. She was 
not, he noted, prepared to lose her property for anything, ‘not even Mr 
Jmnah s Pakistan'. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

would that India have for someone like him, Moslem offspring 
of a princely family? 

That evening he tried to explain his decision to his mother: 
he was going to leave everything behind and go to Pakistan. 

‘You have lived your life,’ he told his mother, ‘mine lies 
ahead of me. I do not think there will be a future for Moslems 
in India after partition.’ 

The old woman looked at him, half angry, half in disbelief. 
‘I do not understand all this,’ she said. ‘We have lived here 
for two centuries. “Ham hawa-ki lankhon darara aye,”’ she 
declared in Urdu, ‘we descended on the plains of India on the 
wings of the wind. We have seen the sacking of Delhi. We’ve 
lived the Mutiny. Your forefathers fought the British for this 
land. Your great grandfather was executed in the Mutiny. We 
fought, fought and fought. And now we have found a home 
here. Our graves are here,’ she sadly noted 

‘I’m old,’ she concluded, ‘my days are numbered. I don’t 
understand politics but as a mother my desires are selfish. I 
am afraid this will separate us.’ 

No, her son protested. It would be as simple as if he were 
stationed in Karachi instead of Delhi. 

He left the next morning. It was a beautiful summer day. 
His mother wore a white sari, the Moslem colour of mourning, 
and it outlined her like a bright stain against the sombre 
sandstone of the house behind her. She made her son pass 
under the Koran which she held over his head, then take the 
Holy Book in his hands and kiss it. Together they recited a 
few of its verses as a parting prayer. When her last words had 
been uttered, his mother puffed her cheeks and gently blew 
her breath towards her son to make sure her prayer would 
follow him. 

As he opened the door of the family Packard waiting to 
take him to the station, Yacoub Khan turned to wave goodbye. 
Erect, dignified in her sadness, the elderly woman could only 
nod in reply. Behind her from the windows of the mansion, 
a score of turbaned servants gestured their last Salaams . One 
of those windows gave on to the room that Yacoub Khan had 


Freedom at Midnight 

used as a young man. It was still packed with his cricket pads 
and photograph albums, the cups he’d won at polo, all the 
memorabilia of his youth. There was no hurry, he thought. 
Once he’d settled in Pakistan he’d come back to pick it all up. 

Yacoub Khan was, of course, wrong. He would never return 
to his family home nor would he see his mother again. In a 
few months’ time, he would be leading a battalion of the 
Pakistan Army up a snow-covered slope in Kashmir, assaulting 
a position held by men who had been his brother officers. 
Among the units seeking to stem his advance would be a 
company of the Garhwal Regiment. Its commander would be, 
like Yacoub Khan, a Moslem. Unlike Yacoub Khan, however, 
he made the other decision in July 1947. He elected to remain 
in the land of his birth. He, too, was from Rampur. His name, 
too, was Khan, Younis Khan. He was Yacoub’s younger 


The burden of carrying out the most complex task involved 
in India s partition was to fall upon one lonely man labouring 
in June 1947 in the Dickensian gloom of his law chambers at 
3 New Square, Lincoln s Inn, London. Since he had come 
down from Oxford with a first in Greats and an All Souls’ 
Fellowship, an aura of brilliance had hung over Sir Cyril Rad- 
cliffe as some men are surrounded by an aura of saintliness 
or raffishness. The son of a wealthy sportsman, Radcliffe had 
followed the law with a passion comparable to that with which 
his father had spent his life pursuing pheasant and grouse. A 
slightly stout man with a deceptively benign regard, Radcliffe, 
it was generally acknowledged, was the most brilliant barrister 
in England. 

Despite his encyclopaedic knowledge of a vast array of sub- 
jects, however, Radcliffe knew virtually nothing about India. 
He had never written about it nor become involved in any of 
its complex legal problems. Indeed, Radcliffe had never even 
set foot on the sub-continent. Paradoxically, it was for that 
very reason that he was summoned from his chambers to the 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

office of the Lord Chancellor on the afternoon of 27 June 1947- 
The central problem left unresolved by Mountbatten’s par- 
tition plan was where the boundary lines dividing the provinces 
of Bengal and the Punjab were to fall. Aware that they them- 
selves could never agree on a line, Nehru and Jinnah, the Lord 
Chancellor explained to Radcliffe, had decided to place the 
task in the hands of a boundary commission whose chairman 
would be a distinguished English barrister. The man needed 
for that job was someone without Indian experience. Anyone 
who knew the country was certain to be disqualified as preju- 
diced by one side or the other. Radcliffe’s admirable legal 
reputation and his equally admirable ignorance of India made 
him, the Lord Chancellor pointed out, the ideal candidate. 

Radcliffe sat back aghast. He barely knew where the Punjab 
and Bengal were. Trying to divide them was the last job in 
the world he wanted. If he was ignorant of India, he knew 
enough of judicial proceedings to realize it would be a thank- 
less task. Like many Englishmen of his age and background, 
however, Radcliffe was a man with a deep sense of duty. Eng- 
land’s relationship to India had been unique and if, at this 
critical juncture, two Indian leaders who were able to agree 
on virtually nothing else had concurred on the appointment 
of him, an Englishman, to this appalling task, then he felt he 
had no choice but to accept. 

An hour later, for Radcliffe’s benefit, the Permanent Under 
Secretary at the India Office unfolded a map of the sub- 
continent on his desk. As his finger traced the course of the 
Ganges and the Indus, the green stain representing the Punjab 
plain, the white crest lines of the Himalayas, Radcliffe dis- 
covered for the first time the outlines of the enormous prov- 
inces he’d agreed to divide: 88 million people, their homes and 
hovels, their rice-paddies, jute fields, orchards and pastures, 
railways and factories, 175,000 square miles of the earth’s sur- 
face all abstracted down to a flat piece of coloured paper on 
a bureaucrat’s desk in London. 

And now, on a similar piece of paper, he was going to have 
to draw the line which would sever those entities as surely as 

228 Freedom at Midnight 

a surgeon’s scalpel severs the bone and muscle of a limb in 
an amputation. 

Radcliffe’s last meeting, before his departure for New Delhi 
took place in the garden of to Downing Street. Clement Attlee 
contemplated with a certain pride the man whose work would, 
in a few weeks, affect the lives of more Indians than that of 
any Englishman in three centuries of Anglo-Indian history. 

The Indian scene was menacing, Attlee acknowledged, but 
one thing at least gave him great satisfaction. How gratifying 
it was that it was an old Haileybury boy like himself who was 
being sent out to draw a line through the homelands of 88 
million human beings. 


Louis Mountbatten had barely had time to savour his triumph 
in wringing an agreement from India’s warring politicians 
before another, even more complex problem was thrust upon 
him. This time his New Delhi interlocutors were not going to 
be a handful of lawyers trained at the Inns of Court but the 
565 members of His Highness Yadavindrah Singh’s flock of 
gilded peacocks, the maharajas and nawabs of India. 

These unpredictable, volatile, occasionally irresponsible 
rulers, assembled in the Maharaja of Patiala’s Chamber of 
Princes, forced the Viceroy to contemplate the nightmare that 
had haunted India for centuries. If India’s politicians could 
divide her, her princes could destroy her. They menaced the 
sub-continent not with partition but with a fatal fragmentation 
into a score of states. They threatened to unleash abruptly all 
the fissiparous tendencies of race, religion, region, and lan- 
guage which lurked just below the fragile surface of Indian 
unity. Those princes had private armies and air forces; the 
capacity to disrupt India’s railroads, postal communications, 
telephones, telegraphs, even to alter the flight patterns of her 
commercial airlines. To respond to their pressure for indepen- 
dence would be to start the disintegration of the sub-continent. 
The remains of the Indian Empire would become a collection 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

of warring territories certain to stir the envy of India’s great 
neighbour, China. 

Sir Conrad Corfield’s secret trip to London had produced 
at least a limited success. The cabinet had acknowledged that 
in theory he was right in arguing all those ancient prerogatives 
the princes had once surrendered to the King Emperor should 
now return to them. He had opened an escape hatch for his 
princes and now he had no hesitation in urging the most 
important among them to use it. 

‘No one,’ Mountbatten noted with a certain bitterness in a 
report to London, ‘had given me the slightest indication that 
the problem of the princes was going to be as difficult, if not 
more difficult, than that of British India.’ 

Fortunately no one was better suited to deal with India’s 
rulers than Mountbatten. He was, after all, one of their own. 
He had what was to those rulers the most impeccable of refer- 
ences, blood ties to half the royal houses of Europe and, above 
all, to the crown that had so long sheltered them. Indeed, 
Mountbatten had first discovered the fabled Indian Empire in 
the company of many of the princes whose thrones he now 
proposed to liquidate. They had been his hosts all along his 
extraordinary odyssey with his cousin the Prince of Wales. 
Mountbatten had lurched through their jungles in pursuit of 
tigers on the backs of their royal elephants. He had drunk 
champagne from their silver goblets, eaten the delicacies of 
the Orient off their gold services, danced under the crystal 
chandeliers of their ballrooms with the girl who would become 
his wife. Among the handful of men in India, Indian or English, 
close enough to the Viceroy to call him in private by his 
familiar nickname ‘Dickie’, were several princely friends 
acquired on that trip. 

For all his royal ties and his friendship with the princes, 
however, Mountbatten was a tough-minded realist, committed 
to those liberal principles which had made him acceptable to 
a Labour government. The princes’ fathers might have been 
the surest friends of the Raj; in the new era opening in India, 
Britain would have to find her friends elsewhere, among the 


Freedom at Midnight 

Socialists of Congress. Mountbatten was determined to estab- 
lish those friendships, and he knew he was not going to do it 
by subordinating India’s national interests to those of a little 
caste of anachronistic autocrats. 

The best he could do for his friends was to try to save them 
from themselves, from the fantasies, the megalomaniac dreams 
it had been so easy to nurture in the privileged isolation of 
their states. Since he’d been a young man, one terrible vision 
had always haunted Mountbatten and could, even in 1947, 
bring tears to his eyes. It was a sight he’d often imagined, the 
grisly spectacle of the cellar of Ekaterinburg in 1918 where his 
uncle the Tsar and the cousins with whom he’d played, includ- 
ing Marie, the princess he’d secretly hoped to marry, were 
murdered. There were, he knew, hotheads among the princes 
of India irresponsible enough to launch themselves on adven- 
tures that could turn their palaces into charnel houses like the 
Tsar’s cellar. The course his own Political Secretary, Corfield, 
wanted some of them to follow could lead to just that. 

Many of those princes assumed Mountbatten was going to 
be their saviour, that he was going to perform the miracle that 
would preserve them and their privileged existence. He was 
not. He had neither the power nor the desire. Instead, he was 
going to try to convince his dear and lifelong friends that their 
only course was to go quiet and unprotesting into oblivion. 

He wanted them to abandon any claims to independence 
and to proclaim their readiness to join either India or Pakistan 
before 15 August. He, in return, was prepared to use his vice- 
regal authority with Nehru and Jinnah to secure as the price 
of their co-operation the best arrangements possible for their 
personal futures. 

Mountbatten proposed his deal first to Vallabhbhai Patel, 
the Indian minister responsible for dealing with the states. If 
Congress, Mountbatten said, would agree to allow the princes 
to retain their titles, palaces, privy purses, immunity from 
arrest, right to British decorations and quasi-diplomatic status, 
he, in turn, would try to persuade them to sign an Act of 
Accession renouncing their temporal power, acceding to the 

Wearing the simple homespun cotton cloth that was his personal uniform, Winston 
Churchills ‘half-naked fakir’ arrives in London for the 1931 Round Table Conference. 

A few days later, similarly dressed, Gandhi arrived at Buckingham Palace to take tea with 
King George V. Chided for his dress, he later remarked: ‘The King was wearing enough 
for both of us.’ 

Pakistan, a nation of 90 million people, grew out of this formal dinner held in a London 
hotel in 1931. Sixteen years later, Mohammed Ali Jinnah (third from the camera on the 
right) was able to proclaim what had seemed to him that evening in London ‘an 
impossible dream’, the birth of an independent Islamic nation on the soil of the Indian 

Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, reviews the last British troops to leave Karachi, on 
14 August 1947. 

On 3 June 1947, at an historic meeting in his study in Viceroy’s House, Mountbatten 
secured the agreement of the Indian leadership to divide India into two separate, 
independent nations. At Mountbatten’s left were Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan and Rab Nishtar 
for the Moslem League; at his right, Nehru, Patel and Kripalani for Congress and Baldev 
Singh for the Sikhs. Seated against the wall behind Mountbatten were his two key advisers, 
Sir Eric Mieville (left) and Lord Ismay. 

Sir Cyril Radcliffe (centre), a distinguished British jurist, was assigned the agonizing task 
of fixing the boundary lines between India and Pakistan in the Punjab and Bengal. 

While his wife looks on, Louis Mountbatten, chosen by the Indians to be their first 
Governor-General, administers the oath of office to Jawaharlal Nehru as India’s first 
prime minister. 

The Mountbattens arrive in Karachi for the ceremonies marking the birth of Pakistan. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

Indian Union and abandoning their claim to independence.* 

It was a tempting offer. Patel knew there was no one in the 
Congress ranks who could rival Mountbatten’s authority in 
dealing with the princes. But, he told the Viceroy, ‘it’s got to 
be everybody. If you can bring me a basket filled with every 
apple off the tree, I’ll buy it. If it hasn’t got all the apples, I 

‘Would you leave me a dozen?’ the Viceroy asked. 

‘That’s too many,’ Patel rejoined, ‘I’ll let you have two’. 

‘Too few,’ Mountbatten said. 

For a few minutes, the last Viceroy and India’s future Minis- 
ter of States bargained like carpet merchants over those states 
which encompassed a population two thirds that of the USA. 
Finally, they agreed on a figure: six. That hardly lightened 
the formidable task before Mountbatten. Five hundred and 
sixty-five princes minus six and a few more for Pakistan, that 
still left Mountbatten with over 550 apples to pluck from a 
resistant tree in the few weeks remaining before 15 August. 

The offer Jawaharlal Nehru was making was the most extra- 
ordinary an Englishman would ever receive from an Indian. 
It would remain unique in the annals of decolonization. In 
the viceregal study in which they had spent so many anxious 
hours together, Jawaharlal Nehru formally asked the last Vice- 
roy, the last occupant of the throne which had symbolized the 
power against which so many Indians had been struggling, to 
become the first occupant of the most illustrious office an 
independent India would have to offer, that of its Governor- 

The germ of Nehru’s idea had come from his rival Jinnah. 
Anxious to make sure Pakistan received its fair share of the 

* The terms of their accord were eventually enshrined, as a final assurance 
to the princes, in India’s constitution. To the last Viceroy’s great distress. 
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, after a long series of manoeuvres, finally 
succeeded in bypassing its provisions in 1973 and terminating the special 
status accorded the princes. 


Freedom at Midnight 

sub-continent’s assets, Jinnah had suggested that Mountbatten 
stay on after 15 August as a kind of supreme arbiter, until their 
division was completed. 

Despite the magnitude of the honour being offered him, 
Mountbatten had grave reservations about accepting it, as did 
his wife. He had succeeded brilliantly in his four months in 
India. He and his wife could now go out as they had hoped 
‘in a blaze of glory’. He was only too well aware that troubles 
loomed ahead and if he stayed on they could tarnish his earlier 
achievements. And if he was to function properly, he felt he 
would have to have a similar offer from Jinnah. 

The dying Moslem leader, however, could not resist the 
pomp, the gaudy ceremonials of the top office of the State for 
which he’d worked so hard. He himself, he told Mountbatten, 
would be Pakistan’s first Governor-General. 

But, Mountbatten protested, he’d picked the wrong job. 
Under the British constitutional process which would prevail 
in the two dominions, it was the Prime Minister who had all 
the power. The Governor-General’s role was a symbolic one 
akin to the sovereign’s with no real power attached to it. 

His argument did not move Jinnah. ‘In Pakistan,’ he coldly 
replied, ‘I will be Governor-General and the Prime Minister 
will do what I tell him to do.’ 

Attlee, Churchill, his cousin the King, all conscious of the 
greatness of the honour being paid England by Nehru’s offer, 
urged Mountbatten to accept it. So, too, did Jinnah. 

Before he could accept, however, the blessing of one man 
was necessary. That the man who had enunciated the doctrine 
of non-violence would consent to installing as independent 
India’s first chief of state a man whose life had been devoted 
to the science of warfare seemed at first unthinkable. Besides, 
the Mahatma, in a characteristically quixotic gesture, had 
already given the world his ideal nominee for the post: an 
Untouchable sweeper girl ‘of stout heart, incorruptible and 
crystal-like in her purity’. 

For all their differences, however, a real affinity had grown 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

up between Gandhi and the admiral thirty years his junior. 
Mountbatten was fascinated by Gandhi. He loved his puckish 
humour. From the moment he’d arrived, he had rejected all 
the Raj stereotypes and looked on the Mahatma and his ideas 
with an open mind. With each of their meetings his personal 
affection for Gandhi had grown. 

Gandhi, an affectionate man himself, had sensed Mount- 
batten’s warmth and responded to it. One July afternoon, the 
man who had spent so many years in British jails walked 
into the Viceroy’s study. There Gandhi asked Mountbatten to 
accept Congress’s invitation to become the first Governor- 
General of the nation it had taken him 35 years to wrest from 
Mountbatten’s countrymen. 

Gandhi’s words were an immense personal tribute to 
Mountbatten and an equally immense tribute to the British. 
Looking at him, lost in his enormous armchair, Mountbatten 
was overwhelmed. ‘We’ve jailed him, we’ve humiliated him, 
we’ve scorned him. We’ve ignored him,’ he thought, ‘and he 
still has the greatness of spirit to do this.’ Touched almost to 
tears, Mountbatten thanked Gandhi for his encouragement. 

Gandhi acknowledged his words with barely a nod and con- 
tinued his speech. With a wave of his delicate hand, he indi- 
cated the sweep of Viceroy’s House and its great Moghul 
gardens. All this, he said to the Viceroy who loved every regal 
inch of the place, who revelled in its pomp, its pageantry and 
glamour, who delighted in its servants, its cuisine, who sav- 
oured every one of its luxuries, all this, would have to go in 
an independent India. Its arrogant opulence, its associations 
with the past, were an affront to India’s impoverished masses. 
Her new leaders would have to set an example. Mountbatten 
as their first chief of state would, he hoped, give the lead. 
Move out of Viceroy’s House and live in a simple home with- 
out servants, he urged. Lutyens’ palace could be converted 
into a hospital. 

Mountbatten stiffened and a wry smile crossed his face. Wily 
Gandhi, he thought, he’s all but asking me to clean out my 
own toilet. Attlee, the King, Nehru and Jinnah were thrusting 


Freedom at Midnight 

him into a task about which he had the gravest forebodings. 
And now this delightful, devilish old man was trying to turn 
him into India’s first Socialist, a symbolic leader presiding over 
a fifth of mankind from some spartan bungalow which he’d 
have to sweep 6ut himself each morning. 

The gleaming whiteness of Louis Mountbatten’s study seemed 
to Sir Cyril Radcliffe a world away from the foreboding gloom 
of his own law chambers, a difference almost as great as that 
between the description of his task he’d received in London 
and the one he was getting from the Viceroy hours after his 
arrival in New Delhi. 

In theory, Mountbatten explained, he was to be assisted by 
panels of four judges in each province who were supposed to 
submit to him joint recommendations as to where the boun- 
dary lines should run. In fact, he alone would have to accept 
the responsibility for making all the decisions as it was most 
unlikely that those judges, selected by the conflicting parties 
to serve as advocates of their differing points of view, would 
ever be able to agree on anything. 

He was to draw his boundary lines ‘ascertaining the contigu- 
ous majority areas of Moslems and non-Moslems’. In doing 
so he would ‘take into account other factors’. No one had any 
intention of spelling out for him what those other factors 
should be or what weight he should give them. To do so would 
have led Nehru and Jinnah into another of their unending 

Ironically, the one specific criterion he was given was based 
on a totally erroneous assumption. Convinced that future 
relations between India and Pakistan would be friendly, the 
Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, Field-Marshal Sir 
Claude Auchinleck, authorized Radcliffe to ignore the elements 
which were usually the first concern of a nation in setting its 
frontiers, considerations of defence. 

Those points, however, were only preliminary jolts before 
the real shock awaiting Radcliffe. Though his task promised 
to be difficult, Radcliffe had come to Delhi convinced he would 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

at least have the time and facilities to carry it out in a deliberate, 
judicious manner. 

Now, he heard Mountbatten explain, it was imperative his 
decision be ready by 15 August, a date only weeks away. Mount- 
batten’s words meant that he would never be able even to 
glimpse the lands he was supposed to divide. If this awful 
haste were really forced on him, he warned Mountbatten, 
errors and mistakes, some of them perhaps grave, were bound 
to creep in. 

Mountbatten acknowledged that he was right. But there was 
no time. India would just have to accept whatever anomalies 
crept into his decision as inevitable and necessary. He would 
have only one set of instructions to give Radcliffe, but they 
would be firm ones: finish the job by 15 August. 

A stubborn, independent man, Radcliffe was not going to 
take the Viceroy’s word as final. He called personally on both 
Nehru and Jinnah. To each he put the same question: was it 
absolutely essential to have definitive partition lines, however 
defective, drawn by 15 August? Both insisted it was. 

Given their insistence Radcliffe had no choice but to comply. 
It was not, he realized, a surgeon’s scalpel he was going to 
require to perform his vivisection of the Punjab and Bengal. 
What he would need was a butcher’s axe. 

The Punjaby July 1947 

Barely a dozen miles from the windows of the Viceroy’s study 
began the first fields of one of the two great Indian provinces 
destined to be severed by Cyril Radcliffe’s hand, the 
Punjab. Never had the granary of India promised a harvest as 
abundant as the one ripening in those golden fields of barley, 
sunburnt wheat, undulating ranks of corn and sugar cane. 
Already, with their slow, painful shuffle, the bullocks lurched 
along the dusty roads, tugging the wooden-wheeled platforms 
on which were heaped the first fruit of the richest soil in 

With few variations, the villages towards which they strained 

236 Freedom at Midnight 

were identical: a water tank covered by a slick of green scum 
where women beat their clothes and boys, flicking switches, 
washed black, dung-crusted water buffaloes; a cluster of mud- 
walled compounds in which buffaloes, goats, cows, dogs and 
barefoot children churned their way through ankle-deep mud 
and puddles of cow urine evaporating in the sun; a hump- 
backed ox plodding dumbly around the eternal circle of the 
millstone, crushing grain to meal; a bevy of women patting 
steaming piles of fresh cow dung into the flat cakes that would 
fuel their cooking fires. 

The heart of the Punjab was the city which had been the 
capital of the empire of a Thousand and One Nights, Lahore, 
the pampered princess of the Moghul emperors. Upon it they 
had lavished the finest flowering of their artisans’ skill: Aurang- 
zeb’s great mosque, its faiences still glistening across the dust 
of centuries, the 99 names of God writ in marble upon its 
cenotaph; the sprawling enormity of Akhbar’s fort with its 
enamelled terraces and marble grilles sculpted like lace; the 
mausoleum of Nurjahan, the captive beauty who married her 
jailer and became an empress; the tomb of Anarkali, ‘Pom- 
egranate Blossom’, jewel of Akhbar’s harem, buried alive Tor 
bestowing a smile on his son; the 300 sibilant fountains of the 
Shalimar Gardens. 

More cosmopolitan than Delhi, more aristocratic than 
Bombay, older than Calcutta, the city was for many the most 
attractive in India. Its heart was the Mall, a wide boulevard 
flanked by cafes, shops, restaurants and theatres. 

Lahore boasted more bars than bookshops. More customers 
crowded its cabarets than faithful its temples and mosques. Its 
red light district was the most elegant in India and the city 
had long savoured the reputation of being the Paris of the 

Its students, noted one observer, dressed like actors, its 
actors like gigolos; its society ladies like courtesans and its 
courtesans like London models. It was the home of the khazan- 
chiy the elegant, silk tunic some Indian women wore instead 
of saris, its folds falling to knee length over silk trousers knotted 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

at the ankle like those worn by the girls of the harems of its 
ancient emperors. 

It was also here that the English had chosen to implant the 
best of those educational hot-houses in which they had nur- 
tured a new generation of leaders. From the Gothic spires of 
their chapels to their cricket fields, their Latin- and Greek-filled 
curricula, their cane-swinging masters, their school caps and 
blazers with seals and mottoes like ‘Heaven’s Light our Guide’ 
and ‘Courage to Know’, those schools were perfect replicas of 
their English models transplanted on to the hot plains of the 

In yellowing ranks the photos of their games teams stared 
down from their walls, rank upon rank of dark, solemn little 
faces peering out from under their rugger caps or proudly 
clutching their hockey sticks and cricket bats. Hindu, Moslem 
and Sikh, those young men had stood side by side at chapel, 
belting out the robust old Christian hymns, had studied the 
works of Chaucer and Thackeray, bruised and bloodied each 
other on the playing-fields in pursuit of the manly virtues of 
the rulers from whom they had now claimed the keys to their 

Lahore was, above all, a tolerant city and communal distinc- 
tions between its 500,000 Hindus, 100,000 Sikhs, and 600,000 
Moslems had traditionally mattered less than anywhere else in 
India. On the dance floors of the Gymkhana and Cosmopolitan 
Clubs, the distance between the communities was often 
reduced to the thickness of a sari as Sikhs, Moslems and 
Hindus rumbaed and did the fox-trot together. At receptions, 
dinners and balls, the communities mingled indiscriminately 
and the sumptuous villas of its wealthy suburbs were owned 
without distinction by Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems, Christians and 

All that had been a lovely dream and it was a dream coming 
rapidly to an end in July 1947. Since January, Moslem League 
zealots had been holding secret rallies in the areas of the Punjab 
where Moslems predominated. Using pictures and the skulls 
and bones of alleged Moslem victims of Hindu atrocities 

2 3 8 

Freedom at Midnight 

elsewhere in India, they fanned the fires of communal hatred. 
Occasionally, a mutilated victim himself was sent from rally 
to rally to display his wounds. A concerted campaign of riots 
and demonstrations had forced the Hindu-Moslem-Sikh 
coalition government that had run the province for a decade 
to resign. As a result the governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, had been 
obliged to take its administration into his own hands. 

A first wave of violence had erupted early in March after a 
Sikh leader had hacked down .a pole flying the Moslem League 
banner with a cry of 'Pakistan Mudabad ’ - ‘Death to Pakistan’. 
The Moslems had given his challenge a swift and bloody reply. 
Over 3000 people, most of them Sikhs, had died in the clashes 
that had followed. Flying over a series of Sikh villages devas- 
tated by Moslem vigilantes, Lt-Gen. Frank Messervy, Com- 
mander-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, 
had been horrified by the rows upon rows of murdered Sikhs, 
‘laid out like pheasants after a shoot’. 

The authorities had finally succeeded in restoring order, but 
since then outbursts of trouble, such as that which had 
destroyed the village of Kahuta which Louis Mountbatten had 
visited in April, had been occurring with growing frequency. 

Inevitably the poison they spread seeped into the streets of 
Lahore. The man whose tracings on a map would determine 
its destiny, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, came to the city, his head full 
of tales he’d heard in England of the glamorous Lahore, of its 
dazzling Christmas season, its hunt ball, its horse shows, its 
glittering social life. There were few echoes of that Lahore in 
the city he discovered. Instead, he found ‘heat and dust storms, 
riots and burning’. 

Already, 100,000 people had fled its streets in fear. Despite 
the terrible heat, its inhabitants had given up an old Punjabi 
summer custom of sleeping outside under the stars. The danger 
of a stealthy hand slitting a sleeping throat had become too 
great. In certain parts of the city Moslem youths would lay 
strips of wire along the road, then jerk them taut in the path 
of a fast-moving cyclist. Their victims were always Sikhs 
because their beards and turbans gave them away. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

The most troubled area in Lahore was inside a seven-mile 
belt of stone, the ancient wall of Akhbar enclosing one of the 
most densely populated areas of the world. There, 300,000 
Moslems and 100,000 Hindus and Sikhs, 104,000 people per 
square mile, seethed like fermenting foam in a labyrinth of 
alleys, souks, shops, temples, mosques and dilapidated dwell- 
ings. All the odours, the shrieks, the clamours of the bazaars 
of Asia abounded in that turbulent mass of humanity. Every 
open place was a thicket of ambulatory merchants. On round 
tin trays, on platters balanced on their heads, on rolling carts, 
they displayed their wares: puffy spice balls fried in fat, pyra- 
mids of oranges, gooey mounds of halva and barji, oriental 
sweets, papayas, guavas, stacks of bananas, glutinous clumps 
of dates each surrounded by its black cloud of flies. Children, 
their eyes whitened by the granular crusts of trachoma, 
squeezed the syrup from stalks of sugar cane on rusty presses. 

Alleys were a byzantine maze of stalls and shops, cage-like 
cells set two feet above the ground to protect them from 
sudden floods during the monsoon. Some undefined frontier 
grouped them into rigid little guilds, leather workers on one 
side, tin-smiths on another. There was the jewellers’ quarter, 
its trays sparkled with the gold bangles that were many Hindus’ 
traditional form of savings; the perfumers’ quarter with its 
clusters of incense sticks and Chinese flasks with their exotic 
essences from which the perfumer mixed his scents to each 
client’s whim; shoemakers’ shops displaying rows of gold- 
embroidered slippers, their ends tapering to a point resembling 
a gondola’s prow; craftsmen displaying cups and ornaments 
of vitreous enamel, silver inlaid in pewter, perforated metal 
work in spun gold as fine almost as candyfloss, lacquered 
platters and rose and sandalwood boxes inlaid with mosaics 
of ivory and mother of pearl. 

There were shops selling arms, daggers, kirpans, the ritual 
swords of the Sikhs. There were flower merchants behind 
mountains of roses and garlands of jasmine strung by their 
children like beads on a string. There were tea merchants with 
a dozen varieties of tea from jet black to olive green. There 


Freedom at Midnight 

were cloth merchants squatting barefooted in their stalls, bolts 
of cloth in dozens of colours behind them. There were shops 
selling wedding turbans cascading in gold trim and embroid- 
ered waistcoats in soft floss silk of cotton interspersed with 
chips of coloured glass, the emeralds, rubies and sapphires of 
the poor. There were barbers; ironworkers; copper, brass and 
tinsmiths working in a cacophony of clanging hammers; 
tailors; carpenters; scavengers, specializing in the sale of old 
tyres, bottles, rags, newspapers; all the trades and commerce 
of the world succeeding each other in noisy and picturesque 

Moslem women, shrouded in the dark folds of their burqas, 
eyes flashing behind the gauze grilles screening their faces, 
slipped like nuns at vespers through the honking, jangling 
swirl of tongas, rickshaws, bicycles, lumbering bullock carts. 
Staring down on that hubbub from behind the hand-carved 
wooden screen of his office windows in the Hindu neighbour- 
hood was the richest man in Old Lahore. Almost a quarter of 
the farmers of the Punjab were enmeshed, some of them for 
life, in the golden web the ageing Bulagi Shah spread from 
that window. He was the most successful usurer in India. 

Now murder stalked those cluttered alleys below Bulagi 
Shah’s windows. It was senseless, wanton murder, its victims 
selected at random because a man wore a Sikh’s turban or a 
Moslem’s goatee. The murderers were goondas, thugs, of all 
three communities, prowling the Old City in search of a 
member of a rival community venturing into their neighbour- 
hoods, striking, then melting off into a maze of alleyways. 

Death, one British police officer remembered, ‘could come 
like lightning. It was over in a flash. Before you could say 
“knife” you’d see a body dying in the streets, every door was 
shut, and no one was in sight.’ 

The killings had maintained an eerily even balance between 
Moslems and non-Moslems. ‘The Moslems are one up today,’ 
the city’s Inspector-General of Police, John Bannet, would 
note, ‘who wants to bet the Hindus get it back tonight?’ 

Every Saturday, the police prepared two weekly diaries, the 


(immediately after Partition) 


Freedom at Midnight 

Weekly Crime Diary and the Weekly Confidential Political 
Activities Diary. Unable to decide into which category commu- 
nal murders should fall, Bannet, with a fine British bureaucrat’s 
regard for thoroughness, ordered them logged into both. 

The man who would have to decide into which dominion 
Lahore would fall was such a controversial figure that the 
Punjab’s governor refused to offer him the hospitality of his 
residence. Instead, Cyril Radcliffe stayed at Falletti’s, a hotel 
founded in i860 by a Neapolitan who’d fallen in love with a 
Lahore courtesan. With the fervour of a desperate man, he 
struggled to extract some minimal measure of agreement from 
the judges who were supposed to assist him. Mountbatten had 
been right. It was a useless effort. 

Whenever he went out, he was assailed by the heat and by 
Indians desperate to influence his decision. Pathetic, terrified 
people, fearful of seeing a lifetime’s accumulation of wealth 
wiped out by a stroke of his pen, they were ready to offer him 
anything for a boundary line favourable to their community. 

At night, to avoid their importunings, he retreated to 
Lahore’s last ‘European Only’ bastion, the Punjab Club, nick- 
named ‘the pig’ by its members. 

There, on its lawns, his ICS aide by his side, waiters in white 
robes flitting through the darkness, the man who knew nothing 
about India sipped his evening whisky and soda and wondered 
where in the hot and hatred-torn city he might find an echo 
of the glamorous Lahore of legend. 

His Lahore would always be the sounds and sights rising 
through the dark horizon surrounding the Punjab Club’s 
lawns: an occasional shower of sparks from a burning bazaar; 
the wail of sirens; the piercing war cry of the city’s rival factions 
- 'Sat Sri Akal’ for the Sikhs, and 'Allah Akhbar’ for the Mos- 
lems - the sinister drumbeats of the fanatic Hindu Rashtriya 
Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSSS) thumping like tom-toms in the 
hostile night. 

Thirty-five miles east of Lahore lay the second great city of the 
Punjab, Amritsar, whose ancient alleyways enfolded Sikhism’s 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

most sacred site, the Golden Temple. Ringed by a shimmering 
tank of water, the white marble temple rose at the end of a 
marble causeway. Its dome, covered in glittering gold leaf, 
sheltered the original manuscript of the Sikh’s Holy Book, the 
Granth Sahib , its pages wrapped in silk and covered in fresh 
flowers daily. So revered was the site that it was swept only 
with a broom made of peacock feathers. 

The six million Sikhs to whom that temple was a spiritual 
lodestone practised the only major religion indigenous to the 
soil of God-haunted India. With their flowing beards, the hair 
they never cut piled under bright turbans, their often imposing 
size and physiques, they represented only two per cent of 
India’s population but they made up her most vigorous, most 
closely knit, most martial community. 

Sikhism was born of the impact of monotheistic Islam on 
polytheistic Hinduism along the warring frontiers of the 
Punjab where the two faiths had first collided. Founded by a 
Hindu guru who tried to reconcile the two faiths, proclaiming, 
‘There is no Hindu. There is no Moslem. There is One God 
- the Supreme Truth,’ Sikhism was favoured under the 
Moghuls with faith’s great fertilizer, persecution. Hounded by 
their cruelty, the tenth and final guru in line of succession 
from Sikhism’s founder converted the religion that had been 
born to reconcile Moslems and Hindus into a militant, fighting 
faith. Gathering his five closest followers, the Panj Pijaras, the 
Five Beloved, Gobind Singh launched his new style Sikhism by 
making the five-drink sugared water stirred by a double-edged 
dagger from a common bowl, an action which shattered their 
caste. Proclaiming them the founders of his new fighting frater- 
nity, the khalsa, the pure, the guru baptized each with a name 
ending in Singh - ‘lion’. They should, he said, stand out among 
the multitudes, men so instantly recognizable they could never 
deny their faith. They would have to develop instead the cour- 
age to defend it with their lives. 

Henceforth, he ordered, Sikhs would follow the law of the 
five ‘Ks’. They would let their beards and hair grow (kesh). 
They would fix a steel comb ( khangha ) in their uncut hair, 

244 Freedom at Midnight 

wear shorts ( kucha ) to have a warrior’s mobility, carry a steel 
bangle ( kara ) on their right wrist, and always go around with 
a kirpan , sword. They were enjoined not to smoke or drink 
alcohol, nor to have sexual intercourse with a Moslem woman, 
nor to eat meat slaughtered as Moslems slaughtered their ani- 
mals, by cutting their throats. 

The collapse of the Moghul empire gave the Sikhs the chance 
to carve out a kingdom of their own in their beloved Punjab. 
Britain’s scarlet-coated troops had ended their brief hour of 
glory, but before collapsing in 1849, the proud Sikhs handed 
the British the worst defeat they would experience in India at 
the Punjabi crossroads of Chillianwala. 

In July 1947, five of India’s six million Sikhs still lived in 
the Punjab. They constituted only 13% of its population, but 
owned 40% of its land and produced almost two thirds of its 
crops. Almost a third of the members of India’s armed forces 
were Sikhs and close to half of the Indian Army’s medal win- 
ners in two World Wars had come from their ranks/ 

The tragedy of the Punjab was that while Moslems and Sikhs 
could live under the British they could not live under each 
other. The Moslems’ memory of Sikh rule in the Punjab was 
one of ‘mosques defiled, women outraged, tombs razed, Mos- 
lems without regard to age or sex butchered, bayoneted, 
strangled, shot down, hacked to pieces, burnt alive’. 

For the Sikhs, the tales of their sufferings at the hands of 
the Punjab’s Moghul rulers were embedded into a bloody 
folklore preached to every Sikh child as soon as it reached the 
age of understanding. At the Golden Temple was a museum 
designed to maintain alive in the memory of each succeeding 
generation of Sikhs the details of every indignity, every horror, 
every atrocity their people had suffered at the hands of the 
Moslems. In gory profusion, huge oil paintings depicted 

Endowed with some mysterious aptitude for mechanics, they had gravitated 
to the automotive industry. In India’s cities, Sikh truck and taxi drivers were 
such legendary figures, it sometimes seemed no one else could - or dared - 
drive on the same road with them. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

spread-eagled Sikhs being sawed in half for refusing to embrace 
Islam, ground to pulp between huge stone mills; crushed 
between meshing wheels studded with blades like gears; Sikh 
women at the gates of the Moghuls’ palace in Lahore seeing 
their infants speared and beheaded by the Moghuls’ Praetorian 

The failure of the Sikhs to react to the violence done in 
March to their community had surprised and comforted both 
the Moslems and the politicians in Delhi. The Sikhs had lost 
their old martial vigour, it was whispered, they had gone soft 
with prosperity. 

That was a grave misjudgement of their mood. Early in 
June, while the Viceroy and India’s leaders had been reaching 
agreement in Delhi on India’s division, the Sikh leadership 
had met at a secret council in Nedou’s Hotel in Lahore. Its 
purpose was to decide Sikh strategy in case partition was 
accepted. The dominant voice at the council was that of the 
hot-eyed fanatic who had started the March conflagration by 
hacking down a Moslem League banner with his kirpan. Tara 
Singh, called ‘Master’ by his followers because he was a third- 
grade schoolteacher, had lost many members of his own family 
in the violence he had provoked and one passion motivated 
him now, revenge. 

‘O Sikhs,’ he had shouted in a speech that foretold too 
well the tragedy soon to overtake the Punjab, ‘be ready for 
self-destruction like the Japanese and Nazis. Our lands are 
about to be over- run, our women dishonoured. Arise and once 
more destroy the Moghul invader. Our mother land is calling 
for blood! We shall sate her thirst with our blood and the 
blood of our enemies!* 


In New Delhi, every new day thrust a score of major and minor 
decisions on the Viceroy and his staff. There were interminable 
discussions about the responsibility for paying the pensions of 
thousands of Britishers being prematurely retired by indepen- 
dence and about the condition under which hundreds of other 

246 Freedom at Midnight 

civilians and officers, staying on at India and Pakistan’s request, 
would labour. 

His interim government composed largely of Congress and 
Moslem League ministers was already beginning to break down 
under the strains imposed by the forthcoming partition. To 
keep it functioning until 15 August, Mountbatten devised an 
ingenious arrangement. Congress was given all the ministries 
but each minister was assigned a Moslem League delegate to 
look over his shoulder and make sure he did nothing injurious 
to Pakistan’s interest. Mountbatten assigned a British general, 
Sir Robert Lockhart, to supervise the referendum which would 
determine whether the North-west Frontier Province joined 
India or Pakistan. Since, at Congress’s behest, he had refused 
Bengal the chance to opt for independence, he now refused 
Congress’s demand to offer the Frontier a similar choice. 

Most vexing problem of all was that posed by Mountbatten’s 
impetuous selection of 15 August as the date for Indian inde- 
pendence. A congeries of astrologers finally advised India’s 
politicians that, though 15 August was a wholly inauspicious 
day on which to begin their nation’s modern history, 14 August 
represented a considerably more favourable conjuncture of the 
stars. A relieved Viceroy accepted the compromise the Indian 
politicans proposed to propitiate the celestial bodies: India and 
Pakistan would become independent dominions on the stroke 
of midnight, 14 August 1947/ 

For thirty years, the tricolour sash of homespun cotton khadi y 
soon to replace the Union Jack on India’s horizons, had flown 
over the meetings, marches and manifestations of a people 
thirsting for independence. Gandhi had designed that banner 
of a militant Congress himself. At the centre of its horizontal 

* At a staff meeting shortly after his press conference, the Viceroy had noted 
with a smile that there was ‘a complete lack of high level advisers on astrology 
on his staff’. Insisting this be ‘remedied forthwith’, he assigned his able 
young press attache, Alan Campbell Johnson, the additi jnal responsibilities 
of viceregal astrologer. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

bands of saffron, white and green, he had placed his personal 
seal, the humble instrument he’d proposed to the masses of 
India as the instrument of their nonviolent redemption, the 

Now, with independence at hand, voices in the ranks of 
Congress contested the right of what they called ‘Gandhiji’s 
toy’ to occupy the central place in what was about to become 
their nation’s flag. To a growing number of party militants 
his spinning-wheel was a symbol of the past, a woman’s thing, 
the hallmark of an archaic India turned inwards upon herself. 

At their insistence the place of honour on the national flag 
was assigned to another wheel, the martial sign the conquering 
warriors of Ashoka, founder of the Hindu empire, had borne 
upon their shields. Framed by a pair of lions for force and 
courage, Ashoka’s proud symbol of strength and authority, his 
dharma chakra y the wheel of the cosmic order, became the 
symbol of a new India. 

Gandhi learned of his followers’ decision with deep sadness. 
‘However artistic the design may be,’ he wrote, ‘I shall refuse 
to salute a flag which carries such a message.’ 

That disappointment was only the first in a harvest of sorrows 
awaiting the elderly leader in the nation he’d done so much 
to create. Not only was Gandhi’s beloved India being divided, 
but the partitioned India soon to be born was going to bear 
little resemblance to the India Gandhi had dreamed of and 
fought for during his long crusade. 

Gandhi’s dream had always been to create a modern India 
which would offer Asia and the world a living example of his 
social ideals. To his critics, those ideals were a cranky old 
man’s obsessions. To his followers, however, they constituted 
a lifebuoy thrown out to mankind by a sane man in a world 
going mad. 

The Mahatma was wholly opposed to those who argued 
India’s future lay in imitating the industrial and technological 
society of the West. India’s salvation, he argued, lay ‘in unlearn- 
ing what she has learnt in the past 50 years’. He challenged almost 

248 Freedom at Midnight 

all the Western ideals that had taken root in India. Science 
should not order human values, he argued; technology should 
nbt order society; and civilization was not the indefinite multi- 
plication of human wants but their deliberate limitation, so that 
essentials could be equitably shared by all. 

The industrialization of the West admired by so many of 
his followers had concentrated power in the hands of the few 
at the expense of the many. It was a doubtful blessing to the 
poor in the West and a menace to the non-white races of the 
underdeveloped world. 

Gandhi’s India would be built on her 600,000 villages, those 
multitudinous facets of the India he knew and loved, an India 
unstained by technology, a haunted India marking the passage 
of her years with the cycle of her religious feasts, her decades 
with the memory of her failed crops, her centuries with the 
spectre of her terrible famines. 

He wanted each of those villages to become self-sufficient 
units, able to produce its own food, cloth, milk, fruit and 
vegetables, to educate its young and nurse its ill. Proclaiming 
‘many a violent war in Asia could have been prevented by an 
extra bowl of rice’, he had constantly sought the perfect food 
to nourish India’s hungry peasants, experimenting with soya, 
peanuts, mango kernels. He attacked machine-polished rice 
because it removed the hard husk rich in vitamin B. 

He wanted to close down India’s textile mills and replace 
them with his spinning-wheel as part of a programme to give 
work to the village under-employed, to provide activities that 
would hold the population in those villages. 

His economic manifesto was ‘the traditional old imple- 
ments, the plough and the spinning-wheel, have been our 
wisdom and welfare. We must return to the old simplicity.’ 
When man invented a tractor that could produce milk, ghee 
and dung, he said, he would recommend it as a replacement 
for the cow to India’s peasants. 

His nightmare was a machine-dominated industrial society 
which would suck India’s villagers from the countryside into her 
blighted urban slums, sever their contact with the social unit 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

that was their natural environment, destroy their ties of family 
and religion, all for the faceless, miserable existence of an indus- 
trial complex spewing out goods men didn’t really need. 

He was not, as he was sometimes accused of doing, preaching 
a doctrine of poverty. Grinding poverty produced the moral 
degradation and the violence he loathed. But so, too, he argued, 
did a surfeit of material goods. A people with full refrigerators, 
stuffed clothes cupboards, a car in every garage and a radio in 
every room, could be psychologically insecure and morally cor- 
rupt. Gandhi wanted man to find a just medium between debas- 
ing poverty and the heedless consumption of goods. 

He also wanted him to live in a classless, egalitarian society 
because social and economic inequality bred violence. All 
labour, physical or intellectual, would carry the same reward 
in Gandhi’s India. It was not a property qualification that 
would earn a man the right to vote in his state, but a labour 
qualification. To get it, everybody would have to contribute 
physical labour to the state. Nobody, including saints or sages, 
would be exempt. The ditch digger would get his almost auto- 
matically, but the lawyer or millionaire would have to earn 
his with his calluses. 

Most important for Gandhi was the example leaders set for 
their followers. He had not been indulging in idle prattle when 
he had stunned the elegant Viceroy by proposing he abandon 
Viceroy’s House for a simple bungalow. The way to abolish 
privilege, he had always maintained, was to renounce it yourself. 

Indeed, none of the other great social prophets of his cen- 
tury, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, had led their lives in such utter con- 
formity to their ideals/ Gandhi had even held his daily food 
intake to the barest minimum he needed to stay alive so as 
not to abuse the resources of his famished land. 

* Gandhi and the Marxists had little use for each other. To most Marxists, 
Gandhi was unscientific. He, in turn, regarded Communism with its atheistic 
overtones and its inherent violence as anathema. Most Socialists, he felt, were 
‘armchair Socialists’, unwilling to alter their own life style or sacrifice any of 
their comforts while they waited the arrival of Socialist Nirvana. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Gandhi’s advocacy of his theories had been accompanied 
by a number of piquant contradictions. He had denounced 
the machine age at prayer meetings across India with the aid 
of one of its most recent manifestations, a microphone, and 
the 50,000 rupees a year that sustained his first ashram had 
been the gift of an industrialist, G. D. Birla, whose textile mills 
represented the most splendid incarnation imaginable of the 
Mahatma’s industrial nightmare. 

Now, with independence approaching, his continuing 
espousal of his ideas was becoming an embarrassment to 
Fabian Socialists like Nehru or ardent capitalists like Patel. 
Their faith was in machines, industry, technology, all the 
apparatus the West had brought to India. They longed to build 
the giant factories and industrial complexes he loathed, to gird 
India’s future in five-year plans. Even Nehru, the beloved 
son, had written that to follow Gandhi’s ideas was to step back- 
ward into the past, to submit India to the most confining 
autarchy imaginable, that of its villages. To their chagrin, the 
Mahatma insisted on proclaiming publicly the canons by which 
he hoped they and the other leaders of the new India would 

Every minister, he said, should wear khadi exclusively and 
live in a simple bungalow with no servants. He should not 
own a car, should be free of the taint of caste, spend at least 
one hour a day in physical work, spinning, or growing food 
and vegetables to ease the food shortage. He should avoid 
‘foreign furniture, sofas, tables and chairs’, and go around 
without bodyguards. Above all, Gandhi was sure ‘no leader of 
an independent India will hesitate to give an example by clean- 
ing out his own toilet box’. 

Naive yet unassailably wise, his words were poignantly 
revealing of the dilemma inherent in all of Gandhi’s ideals. 
They were a perfect scheme cast for imperfect actors. Half a 
century after his death, India’s gravest political ill would be 
the corruption and venality of the very Congress ministers 
whom Gandhi had hoped would follow in his footsteps. 


The Most Complex Divorce in History 

For all his concern about India’s future, Gandhi’s day to day 
preoccupations in July 1947 remained the communal violence 
which continued to plague the sub-continent. Taking Nehru 
with him, he insisted on seeing the first Hindu and Sikh refu- 
gees spilling out of West Punjab. 

It was a staggering confrontation. Thirty-two thousand 
people, the survivors of a hundred Kahutas - the village whose 
horrors had so struck the Viceroy - had been assembled 120 miles 
from Delhi in the heat and the dirt of India’s first refugee camp. 

Shrieking their anger or wailing their grief, they engulfed 
Gandhi’s car in a sea of misery, their hands and fingers gesticul- 
ating, beseeching; their faces contorted in anger or hate; their 
dark eyes begging for some solace to their despair. Buzzing 
swarms of flies hovered over them, alighting in black, wriggling 
patches on their still-open wounds. A great pall of dust stirred 
by their running feet invaded their nostrils and parched throats 
and left its powdery veil everywhere. From all sides, they 
pressed on Gandhi and Nehru, a smelly, sweaty, foul-breathed 
wall of miserable human beings. 

All day Gandhi worked with them, trying to bring some 
order to their improvised camp. He showed them how to dig 
latrines, lectured them on sanitation and hygiene, organized a 
dispensary, nursed as many of the sick as he could. 

Late in the afternoon, they started back to Delhi. His 
77-year-old body worn out by strain, his spirit saddened by 
so much misery, Gandhi stretched out in the back seat of the 
car and fell asleep with his gnarled feet resting in the lap of 
the disciple who had turned his back on him just two months 

Eyes straight ahead, his usually expressive face a mask, 
Nehru rode for a long time in silence, pondering, perhaps, 
what future the sights they had witnessed portended for the 
India he would soon be called upon to govern. Then, slowly, 
tenderly, as though to expiate with his fingers’ gentle touch 
the pain he’d caused him, he began to massage die callused 
feet of the sleeping man to whom he’d devoted so much of 
his life. 


Freedom at Midnight 

At sunset, Gandhi awoke. From each side of their speeding 
car, the broad fields of sugar, wheat, paddy, flat as a man’s 
hand, ran down to a horizon so distant it might seem the edge 
of the world. A fine haze stood above the vast plain, filtering 
through its screen the last roseate glow of the sinking sun. It 
was the cow dust hour, an hour as ancient, as unforgettable 
as India itself. From a thousand, tens of thousands of mudbrick 
huts speckling the great Punjab plain it came, the smoke of 
India’s mealtime fires. Everywhere, squatting on their 
haunches, faded saris clutched to their shoulders, bangles 
clanking on their bare arms, the women tended those fires, 
fussing over the chapatis and channe they cooked, stoking them 
with the round flat patties of dried dung that fuelled them, 
the last of the many gifts of India’s sacred cows. The mantle 
of Indian night, the smoke from those numberless cow-dung 
fires, drifted through the evening sky, permeating it with the 
distinctive pungent smell that was the body odour of Mother 

There in the gathering darkness Gandhi stopped the car and 
sat down by the side of the road for his evening prayer. His 
stooped, shrivelled figure was at one with that vast and mourn- 
ful plain, the neem and peepul trees folding over him. In the 
back of the car, Nehru, his eyes closed, his fingers pressed to 
his eyelids, listened as the high, wavering voice of a broken- 
hearted man beseeched the God of the Gita to deliver his 
beloved India from the fate he foresaw for her. 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers’ 

London, July 1947 

The solemn thumps of a black ebony stave on an antique floor 
had heralded the accomplishment of every great legal act in 
the elaboration of the British Empire. For centuries, the stave 
of the King’s Messenger, the Gentleman Usher of the Black 
Rod, had summoned a delegation of the Commons down the 
aisles of the Houses of Parliament to the Lords, there to witness 
the Royal Assent, the final sanction for the edicts that had 
carried Britain’s imperial power to the ends of thfe earth. The 
ancient ritual had not changed/ but this summer day the 
metronomic beat of the ebony stave rang out a funeral knell; 
a knell marking the death of the British Empire. One of the 
bills awaiting the Royal Assent on Friday, 18 July 1947 would 
sever for ever the British connection with India. 

At the height of Britain’s imperial power, men on the 
benches of Westminster had been able to call the world’s 
unruly to order by the dispatch of a gunboat, or topple a 
foreign despot with the threat of a thin red line of British 
soldiers. The last European nation to embark on the imperial 
adventure, the British had sailed more seas, opened more lands, 
fought more battles, squandered more lives, drained more 
exchequers, administered more people more fairly than any 
other imperial power. Indeed, something in their island 
peoples’ character seemed to have fitted them for that brief 
moment in history when it was held a self-^dent moral 
imperative that white, Christian Europeans should ‘hold 
dominion over palm and pine’. 

The vehicle by which a new generation of men in West- 
minster would end all that was tucked into a wallet embellished 


Freedom at Midnight 

with the Royal Arms and a gold thread. It lay in a pile of 
similar documents on the long table dividing the chamber in 
which the House of Lords sat. 

The Indian Independence Bill was a model of conciseness 
and simplicity. To give India her freedom, members of Parlia- 
ment required only twenty clauses and sixteen typewritten 
pages. Never had so momentous a measure been drafted and 
enacted with comparable speed. Barely six weeks had been 
required to prepare it and send it through its readings in 
the Houses of Parliament. The debate accompanying those 
readings had been marked by dignity and restraint. There had 
been instances in history, Clement Attlee had told the House 
in introducing the historic bill, ‘in which a state at the point 
of a sword has been forced to surrender power to another 
people, but it was very rare for a people who had long enjoyed 
power over another nation to surrender it voluntarily’. 

Even Winston Churchill, giving his melancholy consent to 
what he had labelled ‘a tidy little bill’, had paid a rare tribute 
to his rival Attlee for the wisdom he’d displayed in selecting 
Louis Mountbatten as his last Viceroy. Probably none of the 
words uttered in the course of those debates, however, had 
caught as accurately the mood of Britain’s law-makers as a 
remark by Viscount Samuel. 

‘It may be said of the British Raj,’ he noted, ‘as Shakespeare 
said of the Thane of Cawdor: “nothing in his life became him 
like the leaving it”.’ 

Now, the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, at their head, a 
30-member delegation from the House of Commons took their 
places behind the bar in the House of Lords to witness the 
final act in its passage. 

Dominating one end of the chamber were twin symbols of 
the royal power, a pair of gilded thrones on a dais under a 
tapestry embroidered with the Royal Arms. Before them was 
the Woolsack, the upholstered seat of the Lord High Chan- 
cellor, looking upon a long table on which were piled the bills 
awaiting the assent of George VI. 

The King’s representative, the Clerk of the Crown, took his 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers’ 

place on one side of the long table. The Clerk of Parliament 
took his opposite him. He reached out for the first bill in the 
pile, and in a solemn voice, read out its title: ‘The South 
Metropolitan Gas Bill.’ 

‘ Le Roi le veult ,’ replied the Clerk of the Crown in the 
ancient Norman phra#e which for centuries had signified a 
sovereign’s pleasure at the enactment of a royal decree or Act 
of Parliament. 

The Clerk of Parliament took the next bill from the stack. 

‘The Felixstowe Pier Bill,’ he said. 

‘Le Roi le veult,’ the Clerk of the Crown intoned in return. 

The Clerk of Parliament reached for another bill. 

‘The Indian Independence Bill,’ he read. 

‘Le Roi le veult,’ came the reply. 

Attlee flushed lightly and lowered his eyes, at those words. 
A hush filled the chamber as the echoes of the Clerk’s voice 
died. It was over. In four words of archaic French, in the 
company of a gas works and a fishing pier, Britain’s great 
Indian Empire had been consigned to history. 


It was the last assembly of the world’s most exclusive fraternity. 
Sweating profusely under their brocaded tunics, their decor- 
ation-covered uniforms, their bejewelled turbans, 75 of the 
most important maharajas and nawabs of India and diwans 
representing 74 others, waited in the drenching humidity of a 
New Delhi summer day to learn from the mouth of the Viceroy 
the fate history held in store for them. 

Mountbatten, decorations glittering on his admiral’s white 
uniform, entered the little hemicyde of the Chamber of 
Princes. The Chamber’s Chancellor, the Maharaja of Patiala, 
escorted him to the podium from whence he gazed calmly out 
at that host of unhappy men arraigned before him. 

The Viceroy was ready to start tossing the apples into Patel’s 
basket. His most bitter opponent, Sir Conrad Corfield, was at 
that moment in a plane flying back to London and premature 
retirement. He had left India rather than urge on that bizarre 


Freedom at Midnight 

body of rulers to whom he’d devoted his career a policy of 
which he did not approve. 

The Viceroy was happy to see him go. Convinced his course 
represented the best arrangement the princes could possibly 
hope for, Mountbatten intended to herd them, however reluc- 
tantly, however anguished their protests, into Patel’s waiting 
apple basket. 

Speaking without notes, his tone a mixture of frankness and 
fervour, he urged his listeners to sign the Act of Accession 
which would join their states to either India or Pakistan. A 
resort to arms, he stressed, would produce only bloodshed and 
disaster. ‘Look forward ten years,’ he begged them, ‘consider 
what the situation in India and the world will be then, and 
have the foresight to act accordingly.’ 

The tides of history, however, were a less impressive argu- 
ment to that motley gathering than the next point the Viceroy 
advanced. They were on the verge of extinction, the world as 
they’d known it was collapsing, but the argument that moved 
some of them most concerned the bits of coloured enamel 
dangling on their chests. Sign the acts, Mountbatten urged, 
and he had good reason to believe Patel and Congress would 
allow them to continue to receive from his cousin the King 
those honours and titles they so cherished. 

When his speech was finished, the Viceroy invited questions 
from the princes. Mountbatten was stunned by their absurdity. 
So ludicrous did some of their preoccupations appear that the 
Viceroy wondered if these men and their Prime Ministers really 
understood what was about to happen to them. The prime 
concern of one member of that distinguished gathering was 
whether he could retain the exclusive right to hunt tigers in 
his state if he acceded to India. The diwan of another prince, 
whose employer at this critical juncture had found nothing 
better to do than to go on a tour of Europe’s gambling casinos 
and cabarets, pleaded that as his ruler was on the high seas 
he did not know what course of action to adopt. 

Mountbatten pondered a moment, then picked up a large 
round glass paper-weight which rested on the rostrum before 


'We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

him. Twisting it in his hand like some ancient oriental 
sage, he announced: T will look into my crystal ball for your 

Furrowing his brows, he fixed the ball with the most 
intensely mysterious gaze of which he was capable. For ten 
seconds a heavy silence, broken only by the laboured breathing 
of some of the more corpulent rulers, stifled the chamber. The 
occult was after all not a matter taken lightly in India, even 
by maharajas. 

‘Ah,’ Mountbatten whispered, after milking all the drama 
he could from the gesture, ‘I see your prince. He’s sitting at 
the captain’s table. He says . . . “yes, what is it? — he says 
“sign the Act of Accession”.’ 

The following day, for the last time, a formal banquet 
assembled a Viceroy of India and her ruling princes. Pro- 
foundly saddened by his awareness of what was happening, 
Louis Mountbatten called for a final toast to the King Emperor 
from his oldest and most faithful allies. 

‘You are about to face a revolution,’ he told them. ‘In a 
very brief moment you’ll lose for ever your sovereignty. It is 
inevitable. Do not,’ he pleaded, ‘turn your backs on the India 
emerging on 15 August. That India will not have enough cap- 
able men to represent her overseas.’ She was going to need 
doctors, lawyers, able administrators trained officers to replace 
the British in her army. Many of those princes, educated 
abroad, experienced in handling the affairs of their states, com- 
bat veterans, had skills India would need. They could become 
playboys on the beaches of the Riviera, or they could offer 
their services to the nation and find a new role for themselves 
and their class in Indian society. He had no doubt which 
course they should follow. ‘Marry the new India,’ he begged 


Freedom at Midnight 

Kashmir, July 194/ 

Like a canoe shooting the rapids, the station wagon twisted 
through the ruts and rocks of the dirt path parallel to the 
torrents of the Trika River. The driver’s face with his 
pouting lips, his wary, mistrustful eyes, his chin, its outline 
lost under soft pouches of flesh, was an accurate reflection 
of his character. He was a weak, vacillating man whose 
perversions and orgies had given him the reputation of a 
Himalayan Borgia. Unfortunately, Hari Singh, the man who 
as ‘Mr A’ had titillated the readers of Britain’s penny press 
before the war, was something else. He was the hereditary 
Hindu Maharaja of the most strategically situated princely 
state in India, the vast, sparsely-settled crossroads State of 
Kashmir, where India, China, Tibet and Pakistan were destined 
to meet. 

This morning, a particularly distinguished visitor occupied 
the seat beside Hari Singh. Louis Mountbatten had known 
the Hindu ruler since they had galloped side by side on the 
manicured grass of his polo field at Jammu during the Vice- 
roy’s tour with the Prince of Wales. Mountbatten had deliber- 
ately arranged his state visit to Hari Singh’s capital Srinagar 
to force a decision on Kashmir’s future out of its hesitant 

It was not, however, into Patel’s basket that Mountbatten 
proposed to drop the Kashmiri apple. Logic seemed to dictate 
that Kashmir wind up in Pakistan. Its people were Moslem. 
It had been one of the areas originally selected for an Islamic 
state by Rahmat Ali when he’d first formulated his impossible 
dream. The ‘k’ in Pakistan was for Kashmir. 

The Viceroy accepted that logic. He had, he told the Mah- 
araja, brought with him the guarantee of Patel on behalf of 
the future government of India that if, as seemed natural with 
his overwhelming Moslem population and his geographical 
situation, Hari Singh joined Pakistan, India would understand 
and raise no objection. Furthermore, he said, Jinnah had 
assured him that Hari Singh, even though he was a Hindu 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers’ 

ruler, would be welcomed and given an honoured place in his 

new dominion. t 

‘I don’t want to accede to Pakistan on any account, Hari 

Singh answered. 

‘Well,’ Mountbatten said, ‘it’s up to you, but I think you 
should consider it very carefully since after all almost 90% of 
your people are Moslem. But, if you don t, then you must join 
India. In that case, I will see that an infantry division is sent 
up here to preserve the integrity of your boundaries. 

‘No,’ replied the Maharaja, ‘I don’t wish to join India either. 

I wish to be independent.’ 

Those were just the words the Viceroy did not want to hear. 
‘I’m sorry,’ he exploded, ‘you just can’t be independent. You’re 
a land-locked country. You’re over-sized and under-populated. 
What I mind most though is that your attitude is bound to 
lead to strife between India and Pakistan. You’re going to have 
two rival countries at daggers drawn for your neighbours. 
You’ll be the cause of a tug-of-war between them. You’ll end 
up being a battlefield. That’s what’ll happen. You’ll lose your 
throne and your life, too, if you’re not careful. 

The Maharaja sighed and shook his head. He kept a gloomy 
silence until he reached the fishing camp his peons had set up 
by a bend on the river for the trout fishing he was offering 
his distinguished visitor. For the rest of the day, Hari Singh 
made certain Mountbatten had no chance to corner him alone. 
Instead the Viceroy spent his day casting in the Trika’s crystal- 
line waters for trout. Even they were not prepared to accom- 
modate the frustrated Viceroy. His ADC caught all the fish. 

For the next- two days, Mountbatten repeated the process. 
Finally, on the third day, he felt his old friend beginning to 
waver. He insisted they have a formal meeting the following 
morning before his departure, with their staffs and the Mah- 
araja’s Prime Minister present to draw up an agreed policy 

‘All right,’ the Maharaja agreed, ‘if you insist on it.’ 

This particular apple, however, was going to remain firmly 
attached to its tree. The following morning an ADC came to 


Freedom at Midnight 

Mountbatten’s suite. His Highness was sorry, he declared, but 
he was suffering from an upset stomach and his doctor would 
not allow him to attend their little meeting. The story, Mount- 
batten was sure, was absolute baloney’. Invoking doctor’s 
orders, however, Hari Singh refused even to see his old friend 
before he left. A problem which would embitter India- Pakistan 
relations for a quarter of a century. and imperil world peace 
had found its genesis in that diplomatic stomach-ache. 

Elsewhere, Mountbatten enjoyed considerably more success in 
his efforts to fill Patel s basket with apples. For some of the 
rulers, appending their signature to the Instrument of 
Accession was a cruel tragedy. One Raja of Central India col- 
lapsed and died of a heart attack seconds after signing. The 
Rana of Dholpur told Mountbatten with tears in his eyes: 
‘This breaks an alliance between my ancestors and your King’s 
ancestors which has existed since 1765.’ The Gaekwar of Bar- 
oda, one of whose forebears had fed his British Resident dia- 
mond dust, collapsed weeping like a child in the arms of V. P. 
Menon on signing. One ruler of a tiny state hesitated for days 
before appending his signature because he still believed in the 
divine right of kings. The eight maharajas of the Punjab signed 
their Instrument together during a formal ceremony in the 
state banquet hall at Patiala, where Sir Bhupinder Singh ‘the 
Magnificent’ had once lavished the most prodigious hospitality 
in India on his guests. This time, one participant recalled, 
‘the atmosphere was so lugubrious we might have been at a 

A handful of rulers continued to resist the blandishments 
of Mountbatten, V. P. Menon and Patel. One of Mountbatten’s 
closest personal friends, the Nawab of Bhopal, bitterly claimed 
‘the rulers were being invited like the oysters, to attend the 
tea party with the Walrus and the Carpenter’. Udaipur tried 
to form a federation with a number of fellow princes whose 
states adjoined his. So, too, did Gwalior, the son of the man 
with a mania for electric trains. At the behest of his Prime 
Minister, the Maharaja of Travancore, a southern state with a 

‘We Will Always Remain Brothers ’ 261 

seaport and rich uranium reserves, clamoured for indepen- 

The pressures to herd these last reluctant resisters into 
Patel’s basket became intense as 15 August drew near. Where 
he had local Congress organizations, Patel ordered demon- 
strations and street agitation to force their hands. The Mah- 
araja of Orissa was trapped in his palace by a mob which 
refused to let him leave until he’d signed. Travancore’s forceful 
Prime Minister was stabbed in the face by a Congress demon- 
strator. Shaken, the Maharaja cabled Delhi his accession. 

None of the accessions was quite as tempestuous as that of 
the young Maharaja of Jodhpur. Jodhpur had just ascended 
his throne on his father’s death. He was given to a number of 
expensive hobbies like flying, women and conjuring tricks; 
none of them, he realized, likely to stir the sympathy of Con- 
gress’s Socialists. Together with his colleague, the Maharaja of 
Jaisalmer, he arranged a secret meeting in Delhi with Jinnah 
to enquire of the Moslem leader what sort of reception they 
might expect if they took their primarily Hindu states into his 

Delighted at the thought of ripping two key princes away 
from his Congress rivals, Jinnah took a blank sheet of paper 
from his desk drawer and passed it to Jodhpur. 

‘Just write your conditions on this paper,’ he said, ‘and I’ll 
sign it.’ 

The two men asked time to withdraw to their hotel to 
ponder them. There they found V. P. Menon waiting for them. 
Tipped off by one of his mysterious sources about their initiat- 
ive which eventually could have drawn other states into Paki- 
stan, Menon told Jodhpur the Viceroy wanted to see him 
urgently at Viceroy’s House. 

Seating the prince in a waiting-room, Menon set off on a 
frantic search for Mountbatten. Finally locating the Viceroy 
in his bath, who had no idea what he’d done, Menon begged 
him to come down and reason with the stubborn prince. 

His recently deceased father, who’d been his friend for 26 
years, would have been outraged by his behaviour, the Viceroy 


Freedom at Midnight 

told the young ruler. It was folly to try to take the subjects of 
his Hindu state into Pakistan for purely selfish reasons. In 
return, he promised Jodhpur that he and Menon would per- 
suade Patel to adopt as tolerant a view as possible towards his 
personal quirks. 

Mountbatten left Menon to get the impetuous young ruler’s 
signature on a provisional agreement. When he’d gone, 
Jodhpur pulled a fountain pen made in his workshop out of 
his pocket. After signing the text, he unscrewed its cap and 
revealed a miniature .22 pistol which he pointed at Menon’s 

‘I’m not giving in to your threats!’ he shouted. Mountbatten, 
hearing the noise, returned and confiscated the pistol/ 

Three days later Menon delivered a final Instrument of 
Accession to the prince’s palace. Glumly the prince signed. 
Then he decided to bury his past in a celebration with Menon 
as his unwilling guest. All afternoon he poured whisky down 
the poor civil servant’s throat. After that, Menon was forced 
to gulp draughts of champagne while the prince ordered a 
full-scale banquet of roast meats and game, an orchestra and 
a selection of dancing girls. For Menon, a prudish vegetarian, 
the evening was a nightmare. The worst, however, was still to 
come. Hurling his turban on the floor in a fit of rage because 
he thought the music was too loud, the drunken Jodhpur 
dismissed the girls and the band and announced he would fly 
Menon to Delhi in his private plane. He rocketed off the field, 
then twisted his violently ill passenger through every acrobatic 
stunt he could perform before landing him at Delhi airport. 
Green and retching, Menon half-crawled from the plane but 
in his shaking fingers was the document which would deliver 
one more apple into Patel’s waiting basket. 

Despite the tergiversations of a last bunch of diehards, the 

* Years later, Mountbatten, fascinated by magic, performed the required 
conjuring trick to win election to the Magic Circle. He lent Jodhpur’s pen- 
pistol to the group to be displayed in the Magic Circl* Museum, where it 
still rests. 


f We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

Viceroy would, by 15 August, be able to honour his contract 
with Patel. The basket of apples he would present him would be 
overflowing. Five princes whose states would be inside Pakistan 
rallied to Jinnah, Mountbatten and Menon had plucked all 
the rest, with just three exceptions. 

The exceptions, however, were major ones. Driven by a 
cabal of Moslem fanatics terrified at the idea of losing their 
privileges in Hindu India, the ruler of the largest and most 
populous state in India had rejected all of Mountbatten’s coun- 
sels. Ignoring every effort to bring him into an agreement with 
India, the Nizam of Hyderabad strove in vain to force Great 
Britain to recognize his state as an independent dominion. 
From his palace the miserly ruler had not ceased a bitter plaint 
at being ‘abandoned by his oldest ally’, and seeing ‘the bonds 
of long devotion* linking him to the King Emperor severed. 
Kashmir, too, continued in his refusal to align himself with 
either dominion. 

The reasons keeping the third and last ruler from acceding 
to India were of a somewhat different order. Convinced by an 
agent of the Moslem League that the first act of an independent 
India would be to poison his dogs, the Nawab of Junagardh had 
decided either to proclaim his independence or join Pakistan 
despite the fact that his tiny Hindu state would share no 
borders with the Moslem nation. 


‘Gentlemen, this is Mr Savage of the Punjab CID,* Louis 
Mountbatten told the two startled Indian politicians in his 
study on 5 August. ‘He has a story you should hear.’ 

Whatever that story was, it was certain to get the close 
attention of Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan because the body 
Savage represented was known as the best British intelligence 
organization in India. Indeed, its operatives had penetrated 
their own political movements at the highest levels. 

The nervous Savage cleared his throat and began. The infor- 
mation he was about to reveal had been wrung from prisoners 
in an interrogation centre the CID had set up in an unused 

264 Freedom at Midnight 

wing of the Lahore lunatic asylum. So secret was it considered 
that Savage had been obliged to memorize it the evening before 
in Lahore rather than bring it to Delhi on paper. 

A group of Sikh extremists had linked hands with the most 
fanatical political group in India, the bigoted Hindu zealots of 
the RSSS. At their head, stood Master Tara Singh, the third- 
grade schoolteacher who had called on his followers to drench 
India in blood at the Sikhs’ secret convocation in Lahore. The 
two groups had agreed to pool their resources and energies in 
terrorist activity. 

The Sikhs, with their better organization, training and 
knowledge of explosives, would destroy the heavily guarded 
‘Pakistan Specials’, the trains destined to convey from Delhi 
to Karachi the key men and stores assigned to the new state. 
Tara Singh had already installed a wireless set and an operator 
to pass information about the trains’ departures and their 
route to the Sikh armed bands designated to attack them. 

The responsibility for the second action, Savage said, had 
been assigned to the RSSS, whose Hindu members, unlike 
the Sikhs, could easily pass themselves off as Moslems. The 
organization was in the process of infiltrating an unidentified 
number of their most fanatical supporters into the city of 
Karachi. Each had been given a British Army Mills hand- 
grenade. None of them was aware of the others’ existences so 
that the arrest of one man would not compromise the plan. 

On 14 August, those men were to station themselves along 
the route which would carry Mohammed Ali Jinnah in trium- 
phant procession through the streets of Karachi from Paki- 
stan’s Constituent Assembly to the official residence of the 
new Governor-General. As a young Serbian had plunged 
Europe into the horror of World War I, so one of those zealots 
was to assassinate the founder of Pakistan at the height of his 
glory by hurling a grenade into his open carriage. The furore 
provoked by that grisly murder, the RSSS hoped, would 
launch the entire sub-continent into a savage civil war from 
which the numerically superior Hindus were bound to emerge 
as undisputed rulers. 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

The face of the man they wanted to murder whitened at 
Savage’s words. Beside him, Liaquat Ali Khan excitedly 
demanded that Mountbatten arrest the entire Sikh leadership. 
Stunned, the Viceroy wondered what to do. Rounding up the 
Sikh chieftains, he feared, might well start the civil war the 
RSSS wanted. 

Turning to the young CID officer, he said: ‘Suppose I ask 
the governor to arrest the Sikh leaders?’ Listening to his pro- 
posal, Savage thought, Til be bloody scared if you do.’ They 
were, he knew, isolated in Amritsar’s Golden Temple. No Sikh 
or Hindu police would accept an order to go in after them 
and to send in Moslem police was unthinkable. 

‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘I am sorry to have to say there are not 
enough reliable police left in the Punjab to accomplish an 
action of that sort. I hate to say it, but I can see no way to 
carry out such an order.’ 

Mountbatten pondered a moment. Then he announced he 
would ask for a joint recommendation on what to do from 
the Punjab’s Governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, and the two men 
designated to govern its Indian and Pakistan halves after 15 
August. Liaquat Ali Khan half rose from his chair at Mount- 
batten’s words. ‘You want to murder the Quaid-i-Azzam!’ he 

‘If that’s really the way you feel about it, I’ll go along in the 
same car and get murdered with him,’ Mountbatten replied, 
‘but I’m not going to throw the leaders of five million Sikhs 
into jail without the agreement of those governors.’ 

That night, the security-conscious Savage returned to 
Lahore, his briefcase stuffed with toilet paper as a decoy for 
the letter from Mountbatten to Jenkins he carried tucked into 
his underpants. He found Jenkins at a reception on the lawn 
of Falleti’s Hotel. As the man who knew more about the Punjab 
than any Westerner alive read Mountbatten’s letter, his shoul- 
ders sagged in despair. 

‘Whatever can we do?’ sighed Sir Evan Jenkins. ‘How can 
we stop them?’ 


Freedom at Midnight 

Five days later, during the night of 11 to 12 August, the Sikhs 
of Tara Singh successfully executed the first phase of the pro- 
gramme they’d agreed with the RSSS. Two charges of gelignite 
buried along its right of way destroyed the first Pakistan Special 
five miles east of the Giddarbaha railway station in the Fero- 
zepore District of the Punjab. 


Sequestered in a green-shuttered, stucco bungalow on the edge 
of Delhi’s viceregal estate, sweltering in the oppressive summer 
heat, Sir Cyril Radcliffe began to trace out boundary lines 
on a Royal Engineers’ map. The remorseless demand of all 
concerned for speed had given him no alternative but to per- 
form his vivisection in the solitude of his bungalow. Cut off 
from any human contact with the great entities he was divid- 
ing, he was forced to visualize the impact of his work on areas 
that seethed with life, with only maps, population tables, and 
statistics to guide him. 

Daily, he was compelled to slice away at an irrigation system 
embedded into the surface of the Punjab like the veins in a 
man’s hand, without being able to see on the ground the effect 
his line would have. Radcliffe knew water was life in the Punjab 
and he who controlled the water controlled life. Yet he was 
unable to survey the meanderings of his line down even one 
of those vital concrete spillways, sluice gates and reservoirs. 

Never would he walk in a rice paddy or study the jute field 
his pencil was going to mutilate. He would not be able to visit 
a single one of the hundreds of villages through which his line 
would run, to contemplate its effect on the helpless peasants 
it might isolate from their fields, their wells or their roads. 
Not once would he be able to soften the human tragedies his 
boundary was certain to produce by following its trace upon 
the surface of the land he was dividing. Communities would be 
severed from the lands they tilled, factories from their freight 
depots, power plants from their grids, all because of the terrible 
haste India’s leadership had imposed on Radcliffe, compelling 
him to demarcate, on an average, 30 miles of frontier every day. 

2 67 

‘We Will Always Remain Brothers ’ 

The meagre tools he possessed turned out to be hopelessly 
inadequate. It proved almost impossible to find an ordnance 
map large enough to serve as his master map. The details on the 
maps he did find were often inexact. The Punjab’s vital five 
rivers, he noted, had a curious tendency to stray as much as a 
dozen miles from the beds assigned them by the Punjab’s 
vaunted engineering services. The population tables which were 
supposed to be his primary guide were inadequate and con- 
stantly distorted by each side to support their conflicting claims. 

Bengal proved the simpler task. Radcliffe hesitated for a 
long time over Calcutta’s fate. There was, he thought, much 
logic in Jinnah’s claim to it so there might be a unitary flow 
of jute from field to mill to port. In the end, however, he 
felt its Hindu majority population had to overrule economic 
considerations. Once he had resolved that question, the rest 
of his work in Bengal was easier. His boundary, however, was 
‘just a pencil line drawn on a map’, with all the heart-break 
that implied. Almost nowhere in that tangle of swamps, 
marshes and low-lying fields could he find the points of refer- 
ence a boundary-maker seeks, rivers or a line of hills. 

The Punjab was infinitely more difficult. Lahore’s almost 
equally balanced populations shrieked their rival claims to the 
city with which all felt such a deep emotional tie. For the 
Sikhs, Amritsar with its Golden Temple could only be in India; 
yet it was wedged between Moslem areas. 

Beyond them was the mosaic of communal pockets set hap- 
hazardly amongst each other. Either, Radcliffe thought, he 
followed population as his sole guide, creating a host of 
unmanageable enclaves to which access could never be assured, 
or he followed the dictates of geography and a more manage- 
able boundary and lopped the pockets off, with all the tragedy 
that might imply for those he was condemning to live as 
minorities inside a hostile majority. 

Above all, as the weeks of that terrible summer passed, 
Radcliffe suffered from the heat, the cruel, enervating heat. 
The three rooms of his residence were littered with maps, 
documents and reports all typed out on thin, Indian rice paper. 


Freedom at Midnight 

As he hunched over his desk, sleeves rolled up, those sheets 
of paper would stick to his sweating forearms, leaving on their 
damp skin when he had peeled them off a peculiar stigmata: the 
smudged, grey imprint of a few typed words, each representing, 
perhaps, the hopes, the desperate pleas of thousands of human 

The slowly revolving wooden blades of a fan suspended from 
the ceiling provided the only air in the bungalow. Occasionally, 
charged by some mysterious surge of electricity, it went ber- 
serk, filling the bungalow with great, gusty bursts of air. Like 
leaves in an autumn wind, dozens of Radcliffe’s papers would 
go swirling around the room, the villages of the ill-fated Punjab 
driven before the storm. 

From a very early hour, Radcliffe knew that no matter what 
he did, there would be terrible bloodshed and slaughter when 
his report was published. Almost every day as he laboured 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers’ 

over his boundary, he received reports from Punjabi villages, 
sometimes the very communities whose fate he was deciding, 
in which people who had lived side by side for generations 
had suddenly turned on each other in a frenzy of killing. 

He saw virtually no one. Every time he tried to venture 
out for a cocktail party or dinner, Radcliffe found himself 
surrounded by people pressing their claims upon him. His 
only recreation was walking. In the afternoon, he would stro 
along the ridge on which the British had gathered their forces 
in 1857 to crush the mutineers in Delhi. 

At midnight, weary with fatigue, he would walk in the sti- 
fling heat among the groves of eucalyptus trees in his garden. 
Occasionally his young ICS aide would walk with him. Usually 
a prisoner of the anguish he could not share, Radcliffe paced 
the garden in melancholy silence. Occasionally they talked. 
Radcliffe’s sense of propriety would not allow him to share 
his terrible burdens with anybody, and his young aide was too 
circumspect to question him about them. And so, two old 
Oxonians, they talked of Oxford in the hot Indian night. 

Slowly, working in bits and pieces, taking the easiest and 
most evident things first, Radcliffe stretched his boundary 
down the map of India. As he did so, one thought haunted 
him: ‘I’m going through this terrible job as fast, as well as I 
can,’ he told himself, ‘and it makes no difference because in 
the end, when I finish, they are all going to start killing each 
other anyway!’ 

In the Punjab they already had. The roads and railroads of 
what had been the best-administered province in India were 
unsafe. Sikh hordes roamed the countryside like bands of 
Apaches, falling on Moslem villages or Moslem neighbour- 
hoods. A particular savagery characterized their killings. The 
circumcized penises of their male victims were hacked off and 
stuffed into their mouths or into the mouth of a murdered 
Moslem woman. In Lahore one evening a bicyclist raced out 
of an alleyway past the crowded coffee shop where the city s 
most renowned Moslem criminal held court. He hurled an 

2 70 Freedom at Midnight 

enormous, bell-bottomed brass pot used to carry milk on to 
its packed terrace. The pot went clanging through the coffee 
house, sending its occupants diving for cover. When it failed 
to explode, a waiter opened it. The pot contained a gift to the 
Moslem criminal from his Sikh rivals in crime in Amritsar. 
Stuffed inside, instantly recognizable, was a supreme provo- 
cation: scores of circumcized penises. 

In Lahore murder and arson were so senseless, so chaotic 
in nature, that to one British police officer it seemed ‘like a 
city committing suicide’. The Central Post Office was flooded 
with thousands of postcards addressed to Hindus and Sikhs. 
They depicted men and women being raped and slaughtered. 
On the back was the message: ‘This is what has been happening 
to our Sikh and Hindu brothers and sisters at the hands of 
the Moslems when they take over. Flee before those savages 
do this to you.’ They were part of a campaign of psychological 
warfare being conducted by the Moslem League to create panic 
among Sikhs and Hindus. 

Moslem residents of Lahore s good residential neighbour- 
hoods, once the most tolerant in India, had begun to paint 
green Islamic crescents on their gateposts to protect their villas 
from Moslem mobs. On Lawrence Road, a Parsee business- 
man, member of a small religious sect unaffected by the 
communal frenzy, painted a message on his gatepost. Its words 
were an epitaph for Lahore’s lost dream of brotherhood. ‘Mos- 
lems, Sikhs and Hindus are all brothers,’, it read, ‘but, O my 
Brothers, this house belongs to a Parsee.’ 

As the police, largely Moslem in Lahore as elsewhere in the 
Punjab, began to collapse, the responsibility of stemming the 
tide of violence fell increasingly on a handful of British officers. 
‘You grew calluses on your emotions,’ remarked Patrick 
Farmer, a policeman who had previously fired a weapon only 
once in fifteen years of Punjab service. ‘You learned to use 
your tommy-gun first and ask questions later.’ 

Bill Rich, another British police officer, remembered riding 
through Lahore’s darkened bazaars, the horizon rosy from the 
glow of distant fires, while Moslems on the rooftops above 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers ’ 

called softly to each other in the darkness. Like jackals’ cries 
their whispered warnings flitted through the night: ‘Beware, 
beware, beware.’ 

On an arms search in a wretched mahalla, an Old City slum, 
the officer who’d warned of the plot to kill Jinnah, Gerald 
Savage, banged open the flimsy door of a hut. Below him in a 
squalid, unlit room, he could see an old man dying of smallpox 
stretched out on a charpoi , his body withered, his face a mass 
of pus and sores. A terrible smell like a musty rag pervaded the 
room. Sickened by that unexpected glimpse of India’s other, 
timeless miseries, Savage groaned and closed the door. 

Devoted to India, proud of their service, imbued with a 
paternalistic belief in their unique capacities to police the 
Punjab, these men were embittered by the violence sweeping 
their province. They blamed their superiors, the Sikhs and the 
Moslem League, but above all, they blamed the proud admiral 
in Viceroy’s House and what was, to their eyes, his damnable 
haste in bringing British rule in India to an end. 

Even nature seemed determined to thwart them in their last 
hours in the Punjab, failing to provide the succour that might 
have saved them. Day after day; their despairing eyes scanned 
the sky looking for the clouds of a monsoon that refused to 
come. The monsoon with its lashing sheets of rain could have 
quelled the fires ravaging the Punjab cities, its cool air could 
have ended the maddening heat driving men to violent rage. 
It was, the police had always said, the most effective riot control 
weapon in India, but it was the one weapon that was not theirs 
to command. 

In Amritsar, the situation was even worse. Murder was as 
routine an occurrence in its bazaars and alleyways as public 
defecation. The city’s Hindus devised the cruel tactic of walking 
up to an unsuspecting Moslem and splashing his face with 
a vial of nitric or sulphuric acid. Arsonists were in action 

The British Army was finally called in and a 48-hour curfew 
proclaimed. Even the respite these measures brought was tem- 
porary. One day, after a particularly savage outburst of arson 


Freedom at Midnight 

had swept the city, its despairing Superintendent of Police, 
Rule Dean, employed as a last resort a tactic not to be found 
in his riot-control manual. He ordered his police band to the 
central square. There, in the heart of that city dissolving in 
flames, struggling to force the sound of their music over the 
crackle of a dozen major fires, they gave a concert of Gilbert 
and Sullivan, as though somehow the kindly strains of HMS 
Pinafore might restore reason to a city going mad. 

To keep order in the Punjab after 15 August, Mountbatten had 
decided to set up a special force of 55,000 men. Its members 
would be culled from units of the Indian Army like the 
Gurkhas, whose discipline or racial origins made them rela- 
tively immune to communal passions. Called the Punjab 
Boundary Force, the unit was placed under a Briton, Maj.-Gen. 
T. W. ‘Pete’ Rees, whose brilliant handling of his 19th Indian 
Division in Burma had impressed the Viceroy. The force rep- 
resented double the number of men the province’s governor 
had estimated would be required to maintain order in the 
Punjab in the event of partition. When the storm broke, how 
ever, it would be swept aside like coastal huts splintered by an 
unrolling tidal wave. 

The blunt fact was no one - Nehru, Jinnah, the Punjab’s 
knowledgeable governor, the Viceroy himself - foresaw the 
magnitude of the disaster. Their failure to do so would baffle 
historians and focus a wave of criticism on India’s last Viceroy. 

Tolerant, unbigoted themselves, Nehru and Jinnah each 
made the grave error of underestimating the degree to which 
communal passions they did not share could inflame the 
masses of their sub-continent. Each man genuinely believed 
partition would cool, not provoke violence. They assumed that 
their people would react to events with the same reasonable- 
ness as they would. They were both grievously wrong. Swept 
up in the euphoria of their coming independence, however, 
they took their desires for reality and communicated them to 
the relative newcomer in their midst, the Viceroy. 

Their failure to foresee events would have been mitigated had 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers’ 

any of the vaunted administrative or intelligence services with 
which the British had governed India for a century been able 
to predict their course. None of them did. As a result, India, 
apprehensive but not genuinely alarmed, headed for disaster. 

Ironically, the one Indian leader who foresaw the awful 
dimensions of the tragedy ahead was the man who had tried 
so hard to prevent partition. Gandhi had so immersed himself 
in the lives of India’s masses, sharing their sorrow and suffer- 
ings, their daily existence, that he had a unique ability to 
perceive the mood of his nation. He was, his followers would 
sometimes say, like the prophet in an ancient Indian legend 
sitting by a warm fire on a cold winter’s night. Suddenly the 
prophet begins to tremble. 

‘Look outside,’ he tells a disciple, ‘somewhere, in the dark- 
ness a poor man is freezing.’ 

The disciple looks and indeed a man is there. Such, they 
maintained, was Gandhi’s intuitive feel for the soul of India. 

One day, while the Viceroy was constructing his Punjab 
Boundary Force, a Moslem woman attacked Gandhi for his 
opposition to partition. ‘If two brothers were living together 
in the same house and wanted to separate and live in two 
different houses, would you object?’ she asked. 

‘Ah,’ said Gandhi, ‘if only we could separate as two brothers. 
But we will not. It will be an orgy of blood. We shall tear 
ourselves asunder in the womb of the mother who bears us. 

Mountbatten’s real nightmare was not the Punjab. It was Cal- 
cutta. Sending troops to Calcutta, he knew, would be futile. 
If ever trouble broke out in its foetid, pullulating slums and 
congested bazaars, no number of troops was going to be able 
to control it. In any event, the creation of his force for the 
Punjab had taken almost all the Indian Army units regarded 
as reliable in case of a religious conflict. 

‘If trouble had ever started in Calcutta,’ Mountbatten would 
one day recall, ‘the blood that would have flowed there would 
have made anything that happened in the Punjab look like a 
bed of roses/ 


Freedom at Midnight 

He would need another tactic to maintain calm in the city. 
The one he finally chose was a wild gamble, but the dangers 
in Calcutta were so great, the resources available to meet them 
so limited, that only a miracle could save the situation anyway. 
To erect a dyke against the communal frenzy of the world’s 
most miserable city, he planned to employ his dejected spar- 
row, Mahatma Gandhi. 

He put his idea to Gandhi in late July. With his Boundary 
Force, he explained, he could hold the Punjab, but if trouble 
broke out in Calcutta, he said, 'we’re sunk. I can do nothing. 
There s a brigade down there, but I don’t even propose to 
reinforce it; if Calcutta goes up in flames, well it just goes ud 
in flames.’ 

Yes, my friend, Gandhi told him, ‘this is the fruit of your 
partition plan.’ 

It might be, Mountbatten admitted, but neither he nor any- 
one else had been able to propose an alternative solution. 
There was, however, something he could do now. Perhaps 
Gandhi, through the force of his personality and his non- 
violent ideal, could achieve something in Calcutta which troops 
could not do. Perhaps his presence could guarantee the peace 
of Calcutta. He, Gandhi, would be the sum total of the 
reinforcements the Viceroy would send his beleaguered brig- 
ades. Go to Calcutta, Mountbatten urged, ‘you’ll be my one- 
man boundary force.’ 

Despite Mountbatten’s plea, Gandhi had no intention of going 
to Calcutta. He had already decided he would spend India’s 
independence day praying, spinning and fasting beside the 
terrified Hindu minority of Noakhali to whose safety and pro- 
tection he d pledged his life on his New Year’s Day Pilgrimage 
of Penitence. Mountbatten’s, however, was not to be the only 
voice urging him to the terror-ridden slums of Calcutta. 

The owner of the second voice was the most unlikely politi- 
cal ally of Mohandas Gandhi on the entire Indian sub- 
continent. Indeed, if one had deliberately set out to find a 
man who represented the very antithesis of everything the 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

ageing Gandhi had stood for, whose lifestyle was as remote as 
possible from Gandhi’s aesthetic existence, a more ideal figure 
than Shaheed Suhrawardy could not have been found. 

The 47-year-old Suhrawardy was the prototype of the cor- 
rupted, venal politician Gandhi meant to condemn by his 
description of the ministers whom he hoped would rule a new 
India. His political philosophy was simple: once a man had 
been elected to office there was never any reason to leave. 
Suhrawardy had assured his continued presence in power by 
using public funds to maintain a private army of hoodlums 
who, quite literally, clubbed his political rivals into silence. 

During the 1942 famine that had devastated Bengal, Suhra- 
wardy had intercepted and sold on the black market tons of 
grain destined for the starving of Calcutta, an operation which 
had earned him millions of rupees. He dressed in tailor-made 
silk suits and two-tone alligator shoes. His jet black hair, 
dressed each morning by his personal barber, sparkled with 
brilliantine. Where Gandhi had spent the past four decades 
of his life trying to uproot the last vestiges of sexual desire, 
Suhrawardy had given his free run, setting himself, it seemed, 
the prodigious task of bedding every cabaret dancer and high- 
class whore in Calcutta. The fizzing glass in Gandhi’s hand 
invariably contained water with a dash of bicarbonate of soda. 
Suhrawardy’s usually held champagne. While the Mahatma 
had been nourishing himself on soya mash and curds, Suhra- 
wardy’s diet had run to filet mignon, exotic curries and 
pastries, leaving him enveloped by swelling rings of fat that 
sloped from his breasts to his groin. 

Worst of all, his hands were covered with blood. By declaring 
a public holiday and letting his Moslem League followers know 
the attention of his police would be elsewhere, Suhrawardy 
had set the stage for the killings which had ravaged Calcutta 
on Jinnah’s Direct Action Day in August 1946. It was fear that 
the Hindus of Calcutta were now preparing to wreak their 
vengeance for those killings, that drove Suhrawardy to call for 
Gandhi’s help. 

Rushing to the Mahatma’s Sodepur Ashram, he caught him 

276 Freedom at Midnight 

on the eve of his departure for Noakhali. He begged Gandhi 
to stay in Calcutta. Only he, he said, could save Calcutta’s 
Moslems and damp the firestorm of hate threatening the city. 

‘After all,’ he pleaded, ‘the Moslems have as much a claim 
on you as the Hindus. You have always said you were as much 
of us as of the Hindus.’ 

One of Gandhi’s unique faculties had always been discerning 
the best in a foe, then subtly working on it, appealing to it. 
He sensed a genuine concern in Suhrawardy’s heart for the 
fate of his Moslem followers. 

If he agreed to stay in Calcutta, Gandhi said, it would be 
on two conditions. First, Suhrawardy would have to extract 
from the Moslems of Noakhali a solemn pledge of the safety 
of the Hindus in their midst. If a single Hindu was killed, 
Gandhi made clear, he would have no choice but to fast to 
death. In typical Gandhian fashion he was thrusting on Suhra- 
wardy the terrible moral responsibility for his life. 

When Suhrawardy brought him the pledge he wanted, 
Gandhi set out the second part of his bargain. He proposed 
the most incongruous alliance imaginable. He was prepared 
to stay, he said, provided Suhrawardy came to live with him 
day and night, side by side, unarmed and unprotected in the 
heart of a sordid slum in Calcutta. There, the oddest couple 
on the sub-continent, they would together offer their lives as 
the gauge of the city’s peace. 

‘I have got stuck here,’ Gandhi wrote to Delhi after Suhra- 
wardy accepted his idea, ‘and am now going to undertake a 
grave risk . . . The future will reveal itself. Keep close watch.’ 


Like the peeling leaves of an artichoke, the last pages of Mount- 
batten’s famous calendar came flicking off. To the overworked 
Viceroy and his staff, those last days of British rule in India 
appeared ‘the most hectic of any’, and each disappearing page 
of the calendar seemed to carry its problem. The referendum 
in the North-west Frontier Province which gave the territory 
to Pakistan had to be organized, as did a second referendum 


l We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

in Syhllet near the great tea plantations of Assam. There were 
all the festivities marking independence to be arranged. The 
Congress leaders insisted ‘there should be plenty of pomp’ to 
mark the occasion in the old tradition of the Raj. Their grim, 
grey Socialism could come later. 

Congress ordered slaughterhouses throughout India to be 
closed on 15 August. Free cinema shows, were to be offered in 
all the nation’s theatres and in Delhi every school-child would 
receive a sweet and an independence medal. There were prob- 
lems. In Lahore, a government announcement declared that 
‘in view of the disturbed situation, an active and colourful 
programme has been ruled out.’ The leadership of the right- 
wing Hindu Mahasabha, bitter opponents of India s partition, 
told their followers, ‘it is impossible to rejoice and participate 
in the celebrations on 15 August.’ They urged their members 
instead to rededicate themselves to the forceful reunification 
of their ‘mutilated Motherland’. 

A wrangle over protocol temporarily brought plans for Paki- 
stan’s independence celebrations to a halt. The proud Jinnah 
wanted precedence over the Viceroy despite the fact that, tech- 
nically, his dominion would not become independent until 
midnight. He did not get it. 

There were other disappointments in store for the Moslem 
leader. One of the horses trained to pull the semi-state carriage 
he’d inherited by the flip of a coin went lame and the Viceroy 
had to offer him an open Rolls for his first official drive 
through the streets of Karachi. Jinnah himself drew up the 
schedule of ceremonies he wanted to mark Pakistan s birth. 
They had been scheduled to open with a formal state luncheon 
at his residence on Thursday, 13 August until, after some 
embarrassed discussion off-stage, one of his aides delicately 
reminded the man who was about to become the head of the 
world’s most important Islamic nation that Thursday, 13 
August fell in the last week of the holy month of Ramadan, 
when faithful Moslems around the world were expected to fast 
from sunrise to sunset. 

278 Freedom at Midnight 

While the Viceroy and the leaders of the two new dominions 
attended to those myriad details, three and a half centuries of 
British colonization of India was tottering to a close with the 
rattle of ice in a thousand glasses, the melancholy mutter 
of gin-inspired sentiments and the shrill, empty pledges of 
cocktail-party farewells. All across the sub-continent, a crush- 
ing round of parties, at homes, teas, dinners, farewell recep- 
tions, marked the passing of an era. 

Most of the British in India, of course, those concerned in 
the commerce which had brought their forebears to her shores 
in the first place, were staying on. For 60,000 others, however, 
soldiers, ICS officers, police inspectors, railway engineers, 
foresters, communications clerks, it was time to go back to 
that island they’d always referred to as ‘out home’. For some, 
the transition would be painfully abrupt, an almost overnight 
move from a superb governor’s mansion manned by scores of 
servants to premature retirement in a country cottage on a 
pension soon to be ravaged by inflation. There were few who 
would not miss the good life, the clubs and the polo, the 
servants and the hunting, in the spartan climate of the Socialist 
Britain to which they were returning. For years it had been a 
standard joke among the British on the sub-continent that the 
best view of India was from the stern of a P & O steamer 
homeward bound from Bombay. Many of them in the coming 
weeks, however, would remember that sight as the saddest 
vision upon which their eyes ever rested. 

In hundreds of bungalows the lace doilies, the bridal silver- 
ware, the tiger skins and the stories that went with them, the 
oils of moustachioed uncles lost in the 9th Bengal Lancers or 
Skinner’s Horse, the pugree helmets, the depressing dark and 
solemn furniture shipped out from London forty years before, 
was packed up for the trip back. 

A people whose great fault in India, Winston Churchill 
would remark, had been their aloofness, departed in a burst 
of uncharacteristic conviviality. As though implicitly recogniz- 
ing the new order which would follow their departure, saris, 
sherwani tunics and the folds of cotton khadi mixed with the 


‘ We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

business suits and dresses of the British in clubs and homes 
across India where they had rarely been seen before. An extra- 
ordinary air of friendliness infused those gatherings. It would 
be unique: a colonizing people were leaving those they had 
colonized in a burst of goodwill and friendship. 

The bazaar of Old Delhi, Chandi Chowk, swarmed with 
departing British civil servants bartering victrolas, a refriger- 
ator, or even a car for Persian carpets, elephant tusks, ivory, 
gold and silver pieces, even on occasion, the stuffed skins of 
the animals they’d never been able to hunt in the jungles of 
the sub-continent. 

There were the sad legacies left behind, the monuments, 
the statues, those lonely cemeteries where almost two million 
Englishmen lay in Oscar Wilde’s ‘wandering graves’ by ‘Delhi’s 
Walls’ and ‘Afghan lands and many where the Ganges falls 
through seven mouths of shifting sand’. 

The foreign fields in which they lay would not be forever 
England, but at least their custody would remain a British 
preoccupation. Because ‘it was unthinkable we should leave 
our British dead in foreign hands’, the departing Raj had pro- 
vided for their future administration by Britain’s High Com- 
mission in India. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury 
began a collection for a fund to provide for their upkeep/ 

A decision was made to move the famous Well of Cawnpore 
into which Nana Sahib’s rebels had thrown the butchered 
remnants of 950 men, women and children at the height of 
the Mutiny to the cemetery of the city’s All Souls Church. Its 
inscription: ‘Sacred to the perpetual memory of a great com- 
pany of Christian people, chiefly women and children who, at 
this spot, were cruelly massacred by rebels of Nana Dhoomdo 

* The effort was shortlived and the harvest it produced meagre. Few sites 
in India half a century later are as forlorn and desolate as those British 
cemeteries going slowly wild for lack of maintenance funds. Screeching 
monkeys chase lizards across the gray cement slab over Brig. John Nicholson, 
who led the post-mutiny assault on Delhi, and from Madras to Peshawar, 
the weeds and wild grass now obscure the fading inscriptions on the tombs 
the British left behind. 

280 Freedom at Midnight 

Pant of Bitar and cast, the dead and the dying, into the well 
below’ - was covered on 15 August so as not to offend Indian 

The departure was characterized by events almost touchingly 
British in nature. Unwilling to condemn their tough little polo 
ponies to finish their lives between the slots of a tonga cart, 
many an army officer chose to put his mounts down with his 
service revolver. The hundred hounds in the pack of the hunt 
of the Staff College at Quetta were put down on the orders 
of the College’s last Commandant, Col. George Noel Smyth, 
because he was unable to find them suitable homes. The task 
of killing those ‘delightful companions with whom we had 
shared so many hours of sport’ was, the Colonel noted, ‘one 
of the most painful in his career’. Even the Viceroy’s staff 
devoted part of one of their meetings, despite the appalling 
demands on their time, to debating what should be the proper 
future of the Indian Kennel Club in a partitioned India. 

Mountbatten issued strict orders that everything was to be 
left behind, all the stern oil portraits of Clive and Hastings 
and Wellesley, all the sturdy statues of his great-grandmother 
Victoria, all the seals, the silverware, the banners, the uniforms, 
the diverse paraphernalia of the Raj were to be left to India 
and Pakistan for whatever use they wanted to make of them. 

Britain, his Chief of Staff Lord Ismay noted, wanted India 
‘to look back upon our association of the past two hundred 
years with pride. It is true,’ he admitted, ‘they may not want 
those reminders, but it is up to them to say so.’ 

Despite the Viceroy’s orders, not all the treasures of British 
rule would be left behind. On occasion, British officers in the 
Indian Army walked off with pieces of their regimental silver. 
In Bombay, a pair of assistant inspectors of customs were 
summoned to the office of their departing superior, Victor 

‘We may be liquidating the empire,’ Matthews growled, 
‘but we’re not turning this treasure over to Indian hands.’ He 
pointed to a large metal locker behind his desk to which he 
had the only key. 


‘ We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

John Ward Orr, one of his two subordinates, timidly opened 
the box, wondering if it would contain some priceless Hindu 
sculpture, some jewelled Buddha. To his surprise, he saw it 
was filled with neat piles of books. He picked up one and 
immediately understood the nature of the treasure. The trunk 
was a supreme accolade to the bureaucratic mind. In a land 
whose temple walls were covered by the most erotic sculptures 
ever fashioned by the fingers of man, it contained a selection of 
the pornography which, over the course of fifty years, Britain’s 
zealous customs officers had adjudged too scabrous to allow 
on to Indian soil. Orr picked up one, an album called The 39 
Positions of Love . The prosaic postures it recommended, he 
noted, bore about as much relation to the elegant and imagina- 
tive delights practised by the Hindu deities in the temples of 
Khajuraho as an overweight dowager’s waltzing would to the 
pirouettes of the prima ballerina of the Ballet Russe. 

Matthews solemnly extended the key of the trunk to William 
Witcher, the senior of his two aides. He could now, he declared, 
leave India secure in the knowledge that the customs’ greatest 
treasure remained in British custody/ 

* The famous trunk remained safe in British keeping for almost another 
decade. Witcher kept it in his own home where it was found by his wife, 
the daughter of an Anglican bishop. The good woman almost collapsed when 
one day, after her husband had inadvertently left it open, she peered inside. 
Witcher, in turn, passed the trunk on his departure to Orr. When it was Orr’s 
turn to leave in 1955 there were, alas, no survivors left of the high-minded line 
of British customs officers who’d laboured so hard to prevent Indian minds 
from being exposed to the scurrilous influence of such material. After first 
selecting two volumes, Le Guide des Caresses and Les Nuits du Harem, from 
the trunk for the improvement of his French, Orr decided to turn it over, 
at last, to Indian hands. Noting it was perhaps the last British treasure thus 
to pass into Indian possession, he selected as its new custodians a group of 
young men whose healthy appetites might make them reasonably immune 
to the trunk’s message, the members of the Bombay Rugby Club. Orr himself 
returned to England. Shortly after his arrival he received in the mail an 
official document informing him his colleagues in the British Customs were 
detaining his luggage at Southampton - for the illegal possession of porno- 
graphic material. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Bombay , August 194/ 

As always, he was alone. Shrouded in silence, Mohammed Ali 
Jinnah walked through the early morning sunlight towards a 
simple stone grave in a corner of Bombay’s Moslem cemetery. 
There, he performed a gesture which, in the days to come, 
millions of other Moslems would perform because of what he 
had wrought. Before setting off to his promised land of Paki- 
stan, Jinnah placed a last bouquet on the tomb he was leaving 
behind for ever in India. 

Jinnah was a remarkable man, but probably nothing in his 
life had been more remarkable or more seemingly out of 
character than the deep and passionate love which had linked 
the austere Moslem leader to the woman beneath that tomb- 
stone. Their love and marriage had defied almost every 
accepted canon of the Indian society of their day. Indeed, the 
woman should not even have been, there in an Islamic cem- 
etery. The wife of India’s Moslem Messiah had not been born 
into the faith of Mohammed. Ruttenbhai Jinnah had been born 
a Parsee, the descendants of the Zoroastrian fire worshippers of 
ancient Persia who left the corpses of their dead on watch- 
towers to be consumed by the vultures. 

Jinnah had been 41, seemingly a confirmed bachelor,* when 
he fell madly in love with Ruttie, the 17-year-old daughter of 
one of his close friends, during a vacation at the Mount Everest 
Hotel in Darjeeling. Ruttie had been equally mesmerized by 
Jinnah. Her furious father had obtained a court order forbid- 
ding his ex-friend to see his daughter, but on her eighteenth 
birthday, with only the sari she was wearing and a pet dog 
under each arm, a defiant Ruttie stalked out of her millionaire 
father’s mansion and went off to marry Jinnah. 

Their marriage lasted ten years. Ruttie Jinnah grew into a 

* Jinnah had in fact, been married previously to a child bride he’d never 
seen, picked out for him by his family before his departure to London for 
his studies. She had, according to Moslem custom, been represented at their 
wedding by a male relative and died of illness before his return from England. 


l We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

spectacularly beautiful woman, a woman of legendary attrac- 
tiveness in a city known around the world for its beautiful 
women. She loved to flaunt her lean figure in diaphanous saris 
and tightly cut dresses that shocked staid Bombay society. 
She was both a gay, vivacious socialite and an ardent and 
quick-tongued Indian nationalist/ 

Inevitably, the differences in their ages and temperaments 
produced their strains. Ruttie’s flamboyance and out- 
spokenness often embarrassed Jinnah and inhibited his politi- 
cal career. For all his passionate love for her, the unbending 
Jinnah found it difficult to communicate with his mercurial, 
blithe-spirited wife. Jinnah’s dream collapsed in 1928, when the 
beautiful wife he’d loved but failed to understand, walked out 
on him. A year later, in February 1929, she died of an overdose 
of the morphine which she had been taking to ease the pain 
of chronic colitis. Jinnah, already hurt by the public humili- 
ation of her departure, was grief-stricken. As he threw the first 
fistful of dirt into the grave on which he now placed his bou- 
quet, he had wept like a child. It was the last time anyone had 
ever seen a public display of emotion from the Quaid-e-Azzam. 
From that moment forward, lonely and embittered, he had 
consecrated his life to the awakening of India’s Moslems. 

New Delhi, August 1947 

The only thing that remained of the perfect English gentleman 
was the monocle still clamped imperiously in his right eye. 
Gone were the immaculate linen suits. Mohammed Ali Jinnah 
was flying home to Karachi in clothes he had rarely worn since 
leaving the city half a century before to study law in London: 

* At a luncheon in New Delhi in 1921, she was seated next to the Viceroy, 
Lord Reading, who was lamenting the fact that, in the atmosphere engendered 
by World War I, it was quite difficult for him to visit Germany. But why, 
asked Ruttie Jinnah, was it so difficult? 

‘Well,’ explained Reading, ‘the Germans don’t really like us British. I can’t 


‘Then,’ Ruttie quietly asked, ‘how is it that you British came to India?’ 

284 Freedom at Midnight 

a tight-fitting, knee-length sherwani y long coat, ankle-hugging 
churidarsy trousers, and slippers. 

His newly appointed naval ADC, a young officer named 
Syed Ahsan who had been, until the previous day, the Viceroy’s 
ADC, followed Jinnah up the steps to the silver DC3 given 
him by the Viceroy for his historic flight to Karachi. As he 
reached the top of the steps, he turned back for a last glimpse 
at the distant skyline of the city in which he had waged his 
relentless struggle for his Islamic state. ‘I suppose,’ he mur- 
mured, ‘this is the last time I’ll be looking at Delhi.’ 

The house at 10 Aurangzeb Road (in which he had master- 
minded his fight under an enormous silver map of India, the 
frontiers of his impossible dream traced upon it in green) had 
been sold. Ironically, its new owner was a wealthy Hindu 
industrialist named Seth Dalmia. In a few hours’ time, he 
would hoist on to the flagstaff which for years had flown the 
green and white banner of the Moslem League the banner 
symbolizing the house’s new function as headquarters of the 
Anti-Cow Slaughter League, ‘Sacred Flag of the Cow’. 

Exhausted by the effort of climbing the few steps to the 
plane, Jinnah, his ADC Syed Ahsan noted, ‘practically col- 
lapsed’ into his seat gasping for breath. He sat there staring 
impassively ahead while the plane’s British pilot started his 
engines and taxied down the runway. As the DC3 lifted off 
the ground, Jinnah murmured to no one in particular: ‘That’s 
the end of that.’ 

He spent the entire flight silently exercising that curious 
passion of his for newspapers. One by one, he picked papers 
from a stack in the seat at his left, read them, then neatly 
refolded them and placed them in a second stack rising in the 
seat to his right. Not the faintest trace of emotion crossed his 
face as he read those laudatory accounts of his achievements. 
Not once during the entire trip did he speak or reveal even 
the slightest hint of his feelings, the meagrest indication of 
what this flight meant to him. 

As the plane reached Karachi, Jinnah’s aide suddenly saw 
below the aircraft ‘the huge desert with its little hills becoming 

l We Will Always Remain Brothers' 285 

a white lake of people’, the white of their robes accentuated 
by the sun’s reflected glare. 

Jinnah’s excited sister took his hand. ‘Jinn, Jinn, look!’ she 
called. Jinnah’s eyes flicked coldly to the window. His face 
remained immobile as he stared for an instant at the extraordi- 
nary spectacle of the masses in whose name he had laid claim 
to Pakistan. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘a lot of people.’ 

So exhausted was the Moslem leader by the trip that he 
seemed barely able to lift himself from his seat when the DC3 
rolled to a stop. One of the aides offered him his arm to guide 
him out of the aircraft. Jinnah spurned it. The Quaid-e-Azzam 
was not coming home to Karachi on the arm of another man. 
With another effort of his indomitable will, Jinnah, stiffly erect, 
walked unaided down the steps and through the shrieking, 
almost hysterical mob to his waiting car. 

All the way to Karachi the sea of people they’d seen from 
the plane’s window spread like a shimmering white blanket 
along the car’s route. From the dense throng, like the shrieking 
gusts of a desert wind, came a constantly repeated chant: ‘ Paki- 
stan Zindabad .’ Only once did the crowds fall silent. A Hindu 
neighbourhood, Jinnah observed, ‘after all, they have little to 
be jubilant about.’ Later, with the extraordinary impassivity 
that had marked him over the entire trip, Jinnah rode without 
comment or expression through the lower-middleclass neigh- 
bourhood in which he’d been born in a two-storey sandstone 
house on Christmas Day 1876. 

Only as he walked slowly up the steps to Government House, 
the sombre mansion that was now his official residence as Paki- 
stan’s first Governor-General, did a faint hint of the emotions 
he must have felt emerge from behind Jinnah’s cold facade. 
Pausing at the top of the stairs to catch his breath, he turned and 
looked at his new aide. His eyes seemed to glow and for just an 
instant something vaguely like a smile passed across his face. 

‘Do you know,’ he whispered hoarsely to Syed Ahsan, ‘I 
never expected to see Pakistan in my lifetime.’ 


Freedom at Midnight 

The great moment, the moment for which Louis Mountbatten 
had been sent to India, was almost at hand. In barely 36 hours, 
the three-century-old British experience in India would end. 
That experience was ending far sooner than anyone, even the 
last Viceroy himself, had foreseen when his York had flown 
out of the morning mists of Northolt Airport five months 

Now, as the end approached, Mountbatten ’s actions were 
dominated by one concern. He wanted the Raj to go out in a 
final burst of glory, its recessional permeated with an air of 
goodwill and understanding so profound that it might create 
an atmosphere in which a new relationship between Britain 
and the nations sprung from her Indian Empire could emerge. 

There was, Mountbatten knew, one thing which could sour 
in an instant the atmosphere he was so carefully creating. It 
was the boundary award Sir Cyril Radcliffe was completing in 
his green-shuttered bungalow. On no account did Mount- 
batten want the details revealed before the independence cere- 
monies could be held. 

He knew his decision would cause grave complications. 
India and Pakistan would come into existence without the 
leaders of either nation being aware of two of the vital 
components of their nationhood, the number of citizens whose 
allegiance they commanded and the location of their most 
important frontiers. Thousands of people in hundreds of vil- 
lages in the Punjab and Bengal would have to spend 15 August 
in fear and uncertainty, unable to celebrate because they would 
not know to which dominion they were going to belong. There 
would be areas without proper administrative and police 
arrangements. Knowing all that, Mountbatten was still deter- 
mined to keep the boundary decision a secret until after 15 
August. Whatever award Radcliffe had decided upon, it would, 
he realized, infuriate both parties. ‘Let the Indians have the 
joy of their Independence Day,’ he reasoned, ‘they can face 
the misery of the situation after.’ 

‘I decided,’ he advised London, ‘that somehow we must 
prevent the leaders from knowing the details of the award 


‘ We Will Always Remain Brothers' 

until after the 15th of August; all our work and the hope of 
good Indo-British relations on the day of the Transfer of Power 
would risk being destroyed if we did not do this/ 

Radcliffe’s ICS aide delivered the report to Viceroy House 
in two sealed brown manilla envelopes on the morning of 13 
August. On Mountbatten’s orders they were locked inside one 
of his green leather viceregal despatch boxes. The box was set 
on his desk just before his midday departure for Karachi and 
the ceremonies marking the birth of Pakistan. For the next 72 
hours, while India danced, those envelopes would lie in the 
Viceroy’s despatch case like the evil spirits in Pandora’s box, 
awaiting the turn of a key to deliver their sobering message 
to a celebrating continent. 

In barracks, cantonments, along Military Lines, Hindu, Sikh 
and Moslem soldiers of the great army being sliced in two 
along with the sub-continent it had served paid a last homage 
to one another. In Delhi, the troopers of the Sikh and Dogra 
squadrons of Probyn’s Horse, one of the army’s legendary old 
cavalry regiments, offered a gigantic banquet to the men of 
the departing Moslem squadron. They savoured together on 
an open parade ground a final feast of mountains of steaming 
rice, chicken curry, lamb kebab and the regiment’s traditional 
pudding, rice baked with caramel, cinnamon and almonds. 
When it was over, Sikh, Moslem and Hindu joined hands and 
danced a last bhanga, a wild, swirling farandole climaxing the 
most moving evening in their regiment’s history. 

The Moslem regiments in the areas which would fall to 
Pakistan offered similar banquets to their Sikh and Hindu 
comrades leaving for India. In Rawalpindi, the Second Cavalry 
gave an enormous barakana , a ‘good luck’ banquet to their 
former comrades. Every Sikh and Hindu officer spoke, often 
with tears in their eyes, to bid farewell to the Moslem colonel, 
Mohammed Idriss, who’d led them through some of the bitter- 
est fighting of World War II. 

‘Wherever you go,’ said Idriss in reply, ‘we shall always 
remain brothers because we spilled our blood together.’ 


Freedom at Midnight 

Idriss then cancelled the order he’d received from the head- 
quarters of the future Pakistan Army insisting that all departing 
Indian troops turn in their weapons before leaving. ‘These 
men are soldiers,’ he said, ‘they came here with their arms. 
They will leave with them.’ 

The next morning those soldiers who’d served under his 
command owed their lives to his last intervention on their 
behalf. An hour out of Rawalpindi, the train bearing the Sikhs 
and Hindus of the 2nd Cavalry was ambushed by Moslem 
League National Guardsmen. Without their arms they would 
have been massacred. 

The most touching farewell of all took place on the lawns 
and in the grand ballroom of an institution that once had 
been one of the most privileged sanctuaries of India’s British 
rulers, the Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club. Invitation was by 
engraved cards sent by ‘The Officers of the Armed Forces of 
the Dominion of India’ inviting guests to a ‘Farewell to Old 
Comrades Reception in honour of the Officers of the Armed 
Forces of the Dominion of Pakistan.’ 

An air of ‘overwhelming sadness and unreality’ overlaid the 
evening, one Indian remembered. With their well-trimmed 
moustaches, their Sam Browne belts, their British uniforms 
and the rows of decorations they had won risking their lives 
in the service of India’s British rulers, the men mingling under 
the lantern chains all seemed to have been pressed from the 
same mould. In the ballroom the flashing rainbow colours of 
their women’s saris sparkled through the dim lights. 

Above all, they talked and drank in the bar, telling the old 
stories one last time; the stories of the mess, of the desert, of the 
jungles of Burma, of the raids against their own countrymen on 
the frontier, the ordeals and pleasures of entire careers spent 
together in that special fraternity of the uniform and shared 

None of those men could envisage on that nostalgic evening 
the tragic role into which they would soon be cast. Instead, it 
was arms around each other’s shoulders and boisterous cries 
of: ‘we’ll be down for pig-sticking in September’, and ‘don’t 


‘We Will Always Remain Brothers’ 

forget the polo in Lahore’, and 'we must go after that ibex we 
missed in Kashmir last year’. 

When the time came to end the evening, Brigadier Cariappa, 
a Hindu of the ist-7th Rajputs, climbed to the raised dance 
platform and called for silence. ‘We are here to say au revoir 
and only au revoir, because we shall meet again in the same 
spirit of friendship that has always bound us together,’ he said. 
'We have shared a common destiny so long that our history 
is inseparable.’ He reviewed their experience together, then 
concluded: ‘We have been brothers. We will always remain 
brothers. And we shall never forget the great years we have 
lived together.’ 

When he’d finished, the Hindu brigadier stepped to the rear 
of the bandstand and picked up a heavy silver trophy draped 
with a cloth shroud. He offered it to the senior Moslem officer 
present, Brigadier Aga Raza, as a parting gift from the Hindu 
officers to their Moslem comrades in arms. Raza plucked the 
protective cloth from the trophy and held it up to the crowd. 
Fashioned by a silversmith in Old Delhi, it represented two 
sepoys, one Hindu, one Moslem, standing side by side, rifles 
at their shoulders trained upon some common foe. 

After Raza on behalf of all the Moslems present had thanked 
Cariappa for the gift, the orchestra struck up ‘Auld Lang Syne’. 
Instinctively, spontaneously, the officers reached for each 
other’s hands. In seconds, arm in arm, they had formed a 
circle, Hindu and Moslem scattered indiscriminately along its 
rim, swaying in unison together, their booming voices filling 
the damp and sweltering Delhi night with the words of that 
old Scottish dirge. 

A long silence followed its last chorus. Then the Indian 
officers went to the ballroom door and, glasses in hand, formed 
an aisle down its steps and out on to the lawn leading towards 
India’s sleeping capital. One by one, their Pakistani comrades 
walked down the passage formed by their ranks into the night. 
As they did so, on either side, the Indians raised their glasses 
in a final, silent toast to their departing comrades. 

They would, as they had promised each other, meet again, 

2 90 Freedom at Midnight 

far sooner and in far more tragic circumstances than any of 
them might have imagined that night. It was not on the polo 
fields of Lahore that those former comrades in arms would 
have their next rendezvous but on a battlefield in Kashmir. 
There, the rifles represented by the pair of silver sepoys on 
the trophy Brigadier Raza had carried away from the Gym- 
khana Club would no longer be trained upon a common foe, 
but upon each other. 


While the World Slept 


Calcuttdy 13 August 1947 

Thirty-six hours before the date fixed for India s independence, 
Mahatma Gandhi left the restful coconut groves of Sodepur 
Ashram in search. of a miracle. His destination was only ten 
miles from his ashram, but it might have been light years away. 
It was the closest approximation to hell on the surface of the 
earth, one of the blighted slums of Rudyard Kipling’s City of 
Dreadful Night , Calcutta. There, in the meanness and misery 
of the world’s most violent city, the soft-voiced archangel of 
non-violence hoped to perform the miracle which was beyond 
the powers of the Viceroy’s armies. Once again the artisan of 
India’s independence prepared to offer his life to his 
countrymen; this time not to free them from the British, but 
from the hatred poisoning their hearts. 

Even in its legends and the choice of the deities it wor- 
shipped, the city waiting at the end of Gandhi’s brief ride 
venerated violence. Its patron saint was Kali, the Hindu God- 
dess of Destruction, a fiery- tongued ogress garlanded with coils 
of writhing snakes and human skulls/ Each day, thousands 
of Calcutta’s citizens bent in adoration before her altars. Once 
infants had been sacrificed in her honour in secret temples 
near the city and her devotees still practised animal sacrifice, 
drenching themselves in their victim’s blood. 

* According to Hindu lore, Kali was a suicide and her husband, Shiva, 
grief-stricken at her death, went on a mad rampage through creation, waving 
her body from a trident. Vishnu saved the world by hurling a discus at Kali’s 
body shattering it into a thousand fragments. Each spot on earth where one 
of them fell was sanctified, but the holiest spot of all was Kaligat in Calcutta 
where the toes of her right foot came to rest. 


Freedom at Midnight 

In August 1947, a mirage of prosperity concealed the reality 
of Calcutta. The lush green sweep of the Maidan, the Georgian 
mansions and offices of its great trading companies along 
Chowringhee, were only a surface veneer, a facade as false as 
a cinema set. Behipd them, through awful mile after awful 
mile, stretched a human sewer packed with the densest concen- 
tration of human beings on the face of the earth. It included 
400,000 beggars and unemployables, 40,000 lepers. The slums 
they inhabited were a foetid, stinking horror. Their streets 
were cluttered lanes lined with open sewers overflowing with 
their burden of garbage, urine, and excrement, each nourishing 
its hordes of rats, cockroaches, its buzzing clouds of flies and 
mosquitoes. The water flowing from their rare pumps was 
usually polluted by the corpses decomposing in the Hooghly 
from which it was drawn. Once a week, down those lanes, the 
pitiless zamindars stalked in search of the rent for each corner 
in hell. 

At the moment when India was about to attain her freedom, 
3 million human beings in Calcutta lived in a state of chronic 
undernourishment, existing on a daily caloric intake inferior 
to that given the inmates of Hitler’s death camps. 

Those slums were breeding grounds for violence in all its 
forms. Men murdered in Calcutta for a mouthful of rice. With 
the savage killings of Direct Action Day in August 1946, that 
violence had taken on a new dimension, fed by the solid 
religious and racial fanaticism animating its Hindu and Mos- 
lem communities. Since then, not a single day had passed 
without its toll of communal murder. Organized into political 
gangs of goondas - hoodlums, armed with clubs, knives, pistols, 
vicious steel prongs, called tiger’s claws, that could pluck out 
a man’s eyeballs - the two communities faced each other with 
reciprocal fear and mistrust. While India waited to celebrate 
her long-sought freedom, they, the wretched of Calcutta’s 
slums, stood poised to compound their infinite miseries in a 
frenzy of communal slaughter and destruction. 

Shortly after three o’clock on the afternoon of 13 August, 
the man who wanted somehow to stop them arrived in their 


While the World Slept 

midst in a dilapidated pre-war Chevrolet. Cautiously, Gandhi’s 
car crept down Beliaghata Road past a clump of tin-roofed 
shacks towards a low stone wall ringing number 151. There, 
rising over an open patch of dirt the monsoon rains had 
churned into a muddy slush, was a crumbling ruin, a decaying 
vision from a Tennessee Williams stage set. 

Once the broad terraces of Hydari House with their Doric 
pillars and carved balustrades had represented the Palladian 
dream, transposed into the tropics, of some English merchant 
prince. Its current owner, a wealthy Moslem, had long ago 
abandoned it to the rats and cockroaches running rampant in 
its dingy corridors. Swept out, the dark dry coils of human 
excrement littering its grounds, blanketed with bleaching 
powder, the toilet, a rarity in Calcutta which had recom- 
mended the building to the Mahatma, repaired, was ready to 
receive Gandhi and his followers. There amidst the stench, the 
filth and the mud, he had now to begin his quest for a miracle. 

The people upon whom he would have to work it were 
already waiting for him, an excited crowd in waistcoats and 
dhotis. They were all Hindus and many of them had seen 
relatives butchered, wives and daughters raped by the Moslem 
mobs of Direct Action Day. At the approach of his car, they 
began to shriek Gandhi’s name. For the first time in three 
decades, however, Indians were not cheering Mohandas 
Gandhi’s name. They were cursing it. 

Faces contorted with rage and hate, they shouted, ‘Go save 
the Hindus in Noakhali,’ ‘Save Hindus, not Moslems,’ and 
‘Traitor to the Hindus.’ Then, as Gandhi’s car stopped, they 
produced their welcome for the man half the world believed 
a saint. They showered the car with stones and bottles. 

Slowly, one of its doors opened. The familiar figure emerged. 
Glasses slipping down his nose, one hand clutching his shawl, 
the other raised in a gesture of peace, the frail 77-year-old man 
walked alone into the shower of stones. 

‘You wish to do me ill,’ Gandhi called, ‘and so I am coming 
to you.’ 

At that sight, at his words, the demonstrators froze. Drawing 


Freedom at Midnight 

near, the squeaky voice that had pleaded with Kings and Vice- 
roys for India pleaded with them for reason. ‘I have come 
here,’ he said, ‘to serve Hindus and Moslems alike. I am going 
to place myself under your protection. You are welcome to 
turn against me if you wish,’ he continued. ‘I have nearly 
reached the end of life’s journey. I have not much further to 
go. But if you again go mad, 1 will not be a living witness to 

He was saving the Hindus of Noakhali by his presence on 
Beliaghata Road, Gandhi explained. The Moslem leaders who 
bore the guilt for the slaughter of so many Hindus in Noakhali 
had given him their word: not a single Hindu would be harmed 
there on 15 August. They knew he would undertake a fast unto 
death if they failed their promise. 

In response to that pledge, he had come to Calcutta. As 
he had thrust on the Moslem leaders of Noakhali the moral 
responsibility for the safety of the Hindus in their midst, so 
he was now going to try to persuade the Hindus of Calcutta, 
like the members of the angry crowd before him, to become 
protectors of the city’s Moslems. Implicit in his effort was the 
idea that, if his plea to Calcutta’s Hindus failed and they went 
on a rampage of killing, it would be at the expense of his life. 
For, just as he would fast to death if the Moslems broke their 
word in Noakhali, so he was ready to fast to death if the 
Hindus ignored his message in Calcutta. 

That was the essence of his non-violent strategy: a contract 
between the warring parties, with his life as the ultimate guar- 
antee of its fulfilment. 

‘How can I, who am a Hindu by birth, a Hindu by deed, a 
Hindu of Hindus in my way of living, be an enemy of the 
Hindus?’ he asked his angry countrymen. 

Gandhi’s reasoning, the stark simplicity of his approach, 
puzzled and disturbed the crowd. Promising to talk further 
with a delegation from their midst, he and his followers began 
to take over their rotting mansion. 

Their respite was brief. The arrival of Suh-awardy, focus of 
all the mob’s hatred, produced a new explos on. Howling and 


While the World Slept 

jeering, the crowd circled the house. A stone crashed through 
one of its few windows, sending its shattered shards flying 
across the room where Gandhi sat. A barrage followed, smash- 
ing the rest of the windows and beating like gigantic hailstones 
against the decaying exterior of the house. 

Outwardly imperturbable, Gandhi, his shoulders hunched, 
his head bowed, squatted cross-legged on the floor in the 
centre of the house, patiently answering his correspondence 
in longhand. Yet a terrible turning point in his life had been 
reached. On this sweltering August afternoon, only hours 
before the end of India’s long march to freedom, a mob of 
his countrymen had turned on him for the first time since 
that January day in 1915 when he’d walked ashore under the 
arch of the Gateway of India. For Gandhi, for India, for the 
world, the crash of the stones against the walls of Hydari 
House, the hate-inflamed ravings of the mob, were the first 
mutterings of the chorus of a Greek tragedy. 

Karachi , 13 August 1947 
‘Sir, the plot is on.’ 

Louis Mountbatten stiffened perceptibly at those words. A 
glimmer of apprehension flicked across his otherwise impassive 
features. Mountbatten followed the man who’d uttered them 
towards a spot under the plane’s wings where no one could 
overhear their words. 

All their intelligence reports, the CID officer said, con- 
firmed the details of the briefing Mountbatten had been given 
in Delhi. At least one and probably several bombs would, they 
believed, be thrown at the open car scheduled to carry him 
and Jinnah through Karachi’s streets the following morning, 
Thursday 14 August. Despite intensive efforts, they’d failed to 
apprehend any of the Hindu fanatics whom the RSSS had 
infiltrated into the city to carry out the assassination. 

To Mountbatten’s annoyance, his wife had slipped up 
behind them. She overheard the CID officer’s last phrases. 
‘I’m going to drive with you,’ she insisted. 


Freedom at Midnight 

‘You damn well are not,’ her husband replied. ‘There’s no 
reason for both of us to be blown to smithereens.’ 

Ignoring their exchange, the C I D officer continued. ‘Jinnah 
insists on riding in an open car,’ he said. ‘You’ll be going very 
slowly. I’m afraid our means of protecting you are rather 
limited.’ There was only one way, in the CID’s judgment, of 
averting a catastrophe. 

‘Sir,’ he begged, ‘you must get Jinnah to cancel the pro- 

Eighteen hours after an angry mob had stoned the greatest 
Indian of the century, at 9.00 a.m., Thursday 14 August, 1800 
miles from Beliaghata Road, Gandhi’s principal political rival 
prepared to savour the apotheosis of his long struggle. 

Mohammed Ali Jinnah had succeeded where the sorrowing 
leader in the ruins of Hydari House had failed. Despite Gandhi, 
despite the dictates of logic and reason, despite, above all, the 
fatal disease locked in his lungs, Jinnah had divided India. In 
a few moments an austere assembly hall in Karachi would 
witness the birth of the most populous Moslem nation in the 
world. Ranged in the shell-shaped hall’s circling rows of seats 
were the representatives of the 45 million people Jinnah had 
led on their Hegira to nationhood. 

They were a colourful assembly: stolid Punjabis in grey 
astrakhan caps and tightly buttoned sherwanis, white versions 
of a priest’s cassock; glowering Pathans; Wazirs, Mahsuds, 
Afridis, beige and gold-flecked turbans twisted over their 
heads, moustaches scarring their wind-burned faces; short, 
dark Bengalis, representatives of a province Jinnah had never 
visited and whose people he mistrusted; tribal leaders from 
Baluchistan; women from the Indus Valley, their heads 
shrouded in satin burqas ; women of the Punjab in gold- 
speckled shalwars, tunics, over bell-bottomed culottes. 

Beside Jinnah sat the Viceroy from whose reluctant hands 
the Moslem leader had prised his state. Mountbatten glowed 
in his white naval uniform and the decorations he so loved to 
wear, a splendidly fitting figure for the occasion, the first 


While the World Slept 

of the ceremonies which, in the course of the next 36 hours, 
would formally terminate Britain’s overlordship of the sub- 

A taut smile creasing his composed features, Mountbatten 
rose to deliver the King’s good wishes to his newest dominion. 
Then Mountbatten, to celebrate an occasion he had hoped 
would never take place, declared: ‘The birth of Pakistan is 
an event in history. History seems sometimes to move with 
the infinite slowness of a glacier, and sometimes to rush 
forward in a torrent. Just now, in this part of the world, our 
united efforts have melted the ice and moved some impedi- 
ments from the stream and we are carried in the full flood. 
There is not time to look back. There is only time to look 

With those words, the Viceroy looked sideways towards 
Jinnah. His disdainful face, his parchment-dry skin, emitted 
even at this supreme instant no more trace of emotion than 
the features of a pharaonic death mask. 

‘I would like to express my tribute to Mr Jinnah,’ he 
declared. ‘Our close personal contact and the mutual trust and 
understanding that has grown out of it, are, I feel, the best 
omens for future good relations.’ 

As he droned through his ritualistic phrases, Mountbatten 
could not help thinking that he was going to have to risk his 
life in a few moments because of the obdurate man to whom 
they were addressed. The Viceroy had had no more success in 
persuading Jinnah to cancel their threatened procession than 
he had had in trying to get him to abandon his dream of 
Pakistan. To cancel the ride or. to rush through the streets of 
Karachi in a closed car would have been, Jinnah felt, an act 
of cowardice. He would never demean the emergence of the 
nation for which he’d worked so hard with a gesture like that. 
Come what may, Mountbatten was going to have to expose 
himself to an assassin’s bomb in an open car, at the side of a 
man he disliked, to celebrate the birth of a nation to whose 
creation he had been vehemently opposed. 

‘The time has come to bid you farewell,’ he concluded. 


Freedom at Midnight 

‘May Pakistan prosper always . . . and may she continue in 
friendship with her neighbours and with all the nations of the 

Then it was Jinnah’s turn. He looked like a pope giving an 
audience to the faithful with his white sherwani buttoned up 
to the base of his emaciated throat. Britain and the peoples 
she had colonized were parting as friends, he agreed, ‘and I 
sincerely hope that we shall remain friends’. A thirteen- 
century-old Islamic tradition of tolerance for the beliefs of 
others would, he promised, ‘be followed and practised by us’. 
Pakistan, he declared, ‘would not be found wanting in friendly 
spirit by our neighbours and all the nations of the world’. 

Then, almost before they knew it, the speeches were over, 
the trial at hand. Side by side, the two men, rivals in so many 
domains, emerged from the great teak doors of the assembly 
hall. Waiting before them was the black open Rolls-Royce that 
was to carry them through their ordeal. ‘The damn thing looks 
like a hearse,’ Mountbatten thought. For a brief second, he 
fixed his eyes on his wife. He had given her driver strict orders 
to stay well behind his car. He was certain she would find a 
way to thwart them. 

Moving towards the waiting car, a series of grisly images 
forced their way across Mountbatten ’s mind; a vivid, mental 
picture screened behind his carefully arranged public facade. 
They had nothing to do with this procession. They were the 
ghosts of processions past, stirred by the pages of those genea- 
logical charts which were Mountbatten’s passion. On to one 
of their branches, he had meticulously placed the name of his 
great-uncle, the Tsar Alexander II, noting by his name, 
‘deceased 13 February 1881’. Alexander II had been blown into 
lumps of sodden flesh in Saint Petersburg — by a bomb thrown 
into his open carriage. Further down that same branch of his 
family was the name of another uncle, the Grand Duke Serge, 
killed in 1904 by an anarchist’s bomb in an almost identical 
incident. On still another page, was the entry bearing the name 
of his cousin Ena who had gone to her wedding to Spain’s 
Alfonso XIII, her satin wedding gown covered with the flesh 


While the World Slept 

and blood of the coachman killed by a bomb thrown into 
her carriage. Grotesque phantoms from his family s past, they 
seemed now to crowd into his open Rolls-Royce along with 
the young Viceroy. 

His eyes met Jinnah’s as the car started. They did not speak. 
He had never known Jinnah to be anything but tense, Mount- 
batten thought, but now the tension radiating from his being 
was almost palpable. A heart-stopping 31-gun viceregal salute 
followed them down the drive out into Karachi’s streets. There, 
the crowds were waiting, the enormous, happy, exulting 
crowds, a sea of anonymous faces concealing somewhere, on 
some street corner, at some turning, at some window ledge or 
rooftop, the face of the man who wanted to kill them. 
The three-mile route was lined by troops but their backs were 
all to the crowd. They would be useless against an assassin’s 

To Louis Mountbatten, it would seem in later years as 
though that 30-minute ride had lasted 24 hours. They moved 
at a pace barely faster than a quick walk. The crowd lined 
every foot of the route, six deep on the sidewalks, clinging to 
lamp-posts and telephone poles, dangling from windows, 
lining roofs. Blissfully unaware of the drama the men in the 
Rolls were living, they chanted out their ‘ Zindabads , for Paki- 
stan, for Jinnah, for Mountbatten. 

Trapped, the two rolled slowly down that tunnel of faces, 
running a kind of gauntlet from which at any second a hand 
grenade could come arching towards their car. Forced to 
respond to the rejoicing, emotionally charged crowd, they had 
no choice but to act out a grotesque charade. Mountbatten 
would never forget having to pump his hand up and down in 
rhythmic waves, forcing a smile on to his face, while his eyes 
kept sweeping the crowd, studying those faces, looking for a 
sullen stare, a pair of frightened eyes, some clue to tell him 
‘here, this is where it’s going to happen’. 

It was not the first time he had been in such a Situation in 
India. During the Prince of Wales’s tour the CID had 
uncovered a plot to throw a bomb into the royal car as he 


Freedom at Midnight 

rode through the streets of the State of Bharatpur on 8 
December 1921. Young Mountbatten had been obliged to mas- 
querade as his cousin by riding at the head of the royal pro- 
cession in the car usually occupied by the Prince. 

The memories of that harrowing experience flashed through 
his mind now as he watched that sea of faces slide past. ‘Which 
one is it?’ he kept thinking. ‘Is it that one I’m waving to? 
Or the one beside him?’ There were the silly reflections. He 
remembered a military secretary to a governor of Bengal who’d 
caught an assassin’s bomb and thrown it back; but then, 
Mountbatten reminded himself, he’d never been able to catch 
a cricket ball. He kept thinking of his wife behind him, wonder- 
ing if she’d succeeded in countermanding his orders. He did 
not dare interrupt his vigil even for a second to turn around 
to see. Ceaselessly, his eyes scanned the horizon above the 
crowd, radar beacons waiting for the first glint of a piece of 
metal flying towards the car. 

As the cortege came into view from the balcony of his hotel 
on Victoria Road, a young man tightened his grip on the Colt 
.45 swelling his coat pocket. While his eyes watched the faces 
waving from the windows of the building opposite, he slowly 
flicked off the safety catch of his weapon. When Mountbatten ’s 
car neared his balcony, G. D. Savage, the young officer of the 
Punjab CID who’d delivered word of the plot to Delhi, ‘put 
up a prayer’. He, in fact, had no right to have that weapon. 
His service with the Punjab police had ended 24 hours earlier; 
he was on his way home to England. 

In their car, Mountbatten and Jinnah continued to mask 
their apprehension behind their gracious smiles and waves. 
They were both so preoccupied with the risks they had taken 
that they had not said a word to each other since getting into 
the car. The vanity which so many of his critics considered 
his worst failing was the Viceroy’s greatest comfort as the strain 
mounted. ‘These people like me,’ he kept telling himself. ‘After 
all, I have given them their independence.’ He could not believe 
there were men in that crowd willing to kill him. His presence, 
he sincerely thought, might save Jinnah. ‘They just won’t kill 


While the World Slept 

him,’ he insisted to himself, ‘when they realize it means killing 
me at the same time.’ 

On his balcony, Savage held his breath as the car rolled 
under his feet. He kept his hand fixed on his weapon until 
the Rolls had passed beyond the range where he could offer 
its occupants any protection. Then, he went into his room 
and poured himself four fingers of Scotch. 

Ahead of the car now, the ‘ huzzahs ’ and 'Zindabads gave 
way to a menacing silence. A Hindu neighbourhood, Mount- 
batten told himself, this is where it will happen. For five agoniz- 
ing minutes, the cortege crept through those muted crowds 
along Elphinstone Street, Karachi’s principal commercial 
thoroughfare. Almost all its shops apd markets belonged to 
Hindus, embittered and frightened by the event their Moslem 
neighbours^ were celebrating. 

Nothing happened. Suddenly, as welcome as harbour lights 
to a sea captain after a hurricane, the gates of Government 
House rose in front of the Rolls. The most harrowing drive 
of Louis Mountbatten’s life was over. 

As their car eased to a stop, for the first and only time in 
their intense, difficult relationship, Jinnah relaxed. His glacial 
facade disappeared and a warm smile illuminated his features. 
He clamped his bony hands on the Viceroy’s knee and mur- 
mured: ‘Thank God! I’ve brought you back alive!’ 

Mountbatten sat up. ‘What bloody cheek!’ he thought. ‘You 
brought me back alive?’ he asked, incredulous. ‘My God, it’s 
I who brought you back alive!’* 

* An intensive effort by the authors of the book to discover why the plot 
in Karachi was not executed revealed only one indirect testimony offered by 
Pritham Singh, a bicycle repairman in Jullundur. Singh was arrested by the 
C1D in connection with the Sikhs’ part of the plot, the derailment of the 
Pakistan trains. The RSSS had indeed, he claimed, infiltrated its men into 
Karachi, but the leader whose grenade explosion was to be the signal to the 
others to hurl theirs, lost his courage when the car passed him. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Calcutta, 14 August 1947 

As always, he was ready at the appointed hour. Precisely at five 
o’clock on the afternoon of 14 August, Gandhi’s frail silhouette 
appeared framed in the doorway of Hydari House. Slighdy 
stooped, his hands resting on the shoulders of the two young 
girls he called his crutches, he did his quick shuffle through 
the crowds waiting for him in the house’s courtyard. 

The ceremony towards which he walked was as rigidly fixed 
as any of the events in the Mahatma’s meticulously ordered 
days. As Lenin had prepared a revolution in the conspiratorial 
conversations of the cell, and the Fascists had fashioned theirs 
in the pompous glitter of their Nuremberg rallies, the regular 
rendezvous Gandhi had proposed India on the long march to 
freedom had been, appropriately, a prayer meeting. 

In cities and villages, in London slums and British jails, 
neglected only on the rarest of occasions, those prayer meetings 
had been the favoured medium of a genius at human relations 
for communicating with his followers. He had discoursed at 
them on the nutritional values of unhusked rice, the evils of 
the atomic bomb, the importance of regular bowel movements, 
the sublime beauties of the Gita, the benefits of sexual conti- 
nence, the iniquities of imperialism, the rationale of non- 
violence. Repeated from mouth to mouth, reported in the 
press, carried on the radio, those daily messages had been 
the cement binding his movement, the gospel of Mohandas 

Now, in the open yard of his crumbling house in a city of 
fear and hate, he prepared for the last public prayer meeting 
he would address in an India under British occupation. All 
day, Gandhi had received delegations of Hindus to whom he 
had explained the non-violent contract he proposed for Cal- 
cutta, hoping that, with the constandy reiterated oudines of 
his doctrine, a new spirit might radiate across the city from 
Hydari House. The presence of almost 10,000 people at his 
first Calcutta prayer meeting was an indication that he was 
enjoying at least some success. 


While the World Slept 

‘From tomorrow/ he told that crowd, ‘we shall be delivered 
from the bondage of British rule. But from midnight today/ 
he sadly intoned, ‘India will be partitioned too. Tomorrow 
will be a day of rejoicing, but it will be a day of sorrow as 

Independence, he warned his prayer meeting, would 
throw a heavy burden on them all. ‘If Calcutta can return to 
reason and brotherhood, then, perhaps, all India may be 
saved/ Otherwise, he asked, ‘if the flames of communal strife 
envelop the whole country, how can our newborn freedom 

The man who had won India that freedom told his audience 
he would not be among those rejoicing at its arrival. He asked 
his followers to mark India’s Independence Day as he would, 
‘by fasting and by prayer for the salvation of all India, and by 
spinning as much as possible/ because it was that beloved 
wooden wheel that carried the message most likely to save 
their country from disaster. 

For all the ‘ huzzahs ’ and ‘ Pakistan Zindabads\ that had fol- 
lowed his car as it had rolled through the streets of Karachi, 
the birth of the nation Jinnah would one day boast he’d won 
‘with a clerk and a typewriter’, was characterized by a puzzling 
coolness. The ceremonies, The Times noted, ‘were marked by 
a surprising lack of popular enthusiasm’ and ‘a general air of 
apathy’. It was almost as if some instinctive prescience of 
the danger attendant on their nation’s birth had muffled the 
enthusiasm of those millions Jinnah had led to their promised 

Strangely it was in East Bengal, in those areas soon to form 
East Pakistan - and one day, the battlefields of the Bangladesh 
war - that the mood was most festive. Khwaja Mohiuddin, 
East Pakistan’s Chief Minister-designate, left Indian soil at 
noon aboard a tiny steamer festooned with Moslem League 
banners. For hours, the steamer shunted through the mon- 
soon-swollen waters of the Gangetic Delta ert route to Mohiud- 
din ’s new capital at Dacca. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Every time the little steamer tooted to a stop at a cluster of 
huts or a ramshackle jetty stretching into the muddy delta, 
scores of tiny rowing-boats, canoes, and sailing boats poured 
out from the shore to greet it, their occupants shouting ‘ Paki- 
stan ZindabadV 

‘Everybody was singing,’ noted Mohiuddin’s son, ‘you could 
see the happiness in people’s eyes.’ One indispensable element 
for the proper celebration of Pakistan’s birth, however, was 
conspicuous by its absence. Not a single Pakistani flag was on 
display along the steamer’s route. Mohiuddin discovered why 
in Dacca. There were none in all of East Bengal. 

In Lahore, centre of a Punjab seething with violence and 
the terrible uncertainty caused by its still unpublished boun- 
dary line, Bill Rich performed his final chores as the city’s last 
British police superintendent. Outside his dingy office, Rich 
could hear a rhythmic sloshing as a boy threw pails of water 
on the kas kas tati , the bamboo slats screening his windows 
to keep down the fierce heat. He had done what he could to 
check Lahore’s descent into chaos, he thought sadly. It had 
not been enough. The lovely capital of the Moghuls was sub- 
merged in a tide of fear and hate. He posted a summary of 
the violence he’d witnessed in the Police Order Book as a 
record for posterity. Then he called in his Moslem successor. 

Rich took out a form used for handing over charge. It was 
divided into two identical halves. On his half he wrote: ‘I have 
handed over,’ and signed his name. His successor wrote ‘I have 
taken over,’ on the other and signed. Rich saluted, shook hands 
with the few members of his staff he could find loitering about, 
and sadly walked away. 

Thirty-five miles away in Amritsar, his colleague Rule Dean 
was going through a similar ceremony late in the afternoon 
of 14 August. Dean took from his safe the Secret Registry, the 
list of political informers who’d received just under 1000 rupees 
a month from the Amritsar police. Their number included a 
member of the city’s Congress Committee and one of the men 
who prepared the armrit y the sugary communion paste of the 
Sikh’s Golden Temple, but Dean had no hesitation in turning 


While the World Slept 

the list over to his Sikh successor. ‘No gazetted officer of 
police/ Dean was certain, ‘whatever his religion or political 
belief, would deliberately do down an informer.’ 

In Karachi, a weary Jinnah spent his afternoon prowling the 
rooms of the immense home which would become at midnight 
his official residence. Nothing escaped his enquiring eyes. 
Checking the house’s inventory, he discovered to his conster- 
nation the croquet set was missing. He gave his young ADC 
his first formal order: find the missing mallets and hoops and 
return them to his residence. 

The man who had first articulated the impossible dream of 
Pakistan spent the day of 14 August alone in his cottage at 3 
Humberstone Road, Cambridge. There would never be any 
triumphant parades through Karachi’s streets for Rahmat Ali, 
no crowds shrieking their gratitude for what he had wrought. 
His dream belonged to another man now, the man who 
scorned it when Rahmat Ali had first begged him to become 
its champion. On the day his great ideal was taking flesh, 
Rahmat Ali had been drafting a new tract, this one condemning 
Jinnah for accepting the partition of the Punjab. He was talking 
to the wind. A gratified people would vote a million dollars 
to the Lahore memorial that would honour Mohammed Ali 
Jinnah, but the man whose idea had inspired him would be 
buried in a numbered grave in a cemetery at Newmarket. 

New Delhi , 14 August 1947 

They set out at sundown. Like an ungainly crane, a player of 
the nagfisaram , the Indian flute, walked alone before their car, 
guiding it down New Delhi’s crowded streets. Every hundred 
yards the flautist stopped, squatted on the asphalt, and sent 
an eerie shaft of sound shivering through the dusk. The two 
holy men in the car behind him stared straight ahead with 
celestial indifference. They were sannyasin , men dwelling in 
the highest state of exaltation a Brahmin could attain, a state 
so sublime that, according to Hindu belief, it conferred on 
those who’d reached it more spiritual blessings in one lifetime 

306 Freedom at Midnight 

than an ordinary man might hope to attain in ten million 

With their bare chests and foreheads streaked with ashes, 
their matted, uncut hair tumbling in black strands to their 
shoulders, they were pilgrims from an ancient, timeless India. 
Beside each were the three possessions they were allowed in 
their life of renunciation: a seven-jointed bamboo stave, a 
water gourd and an antelope skin/ Each time a silhouette in 
a sari peered in at the windows of their 1937 Ford taxi they 
averted their gaze. So strict were the rules of their society that 
not only were they enjoined to renounce all female company; 
they were not even allowed to look on a woman. Condemned 
every morning to cover themselves with ashes, symbol of the 
body’s transient nature, they lived on alms, never sitting down 
while eating the one meal they were allowed each day and 
drinking regular draughts of pancha gavia> the blessed beverage 
composed of equal parts of the five gifts of the Sacred Cow: 
milk, curds, ghee (clarified butter), urine and dung. 

One of the two bore a massive silver platter upon which 
was folded a swathe of white silk streaked in gold, the Pitamba- 
ram , the Cloth of God. The other carried a five-foot sceptre, 
a flask of holy water from the Tanjore River, a pouch of sacred 
ash and a pouch of boiled rice which had been offered at dawn 
at the feet of Nataraja, the dancing God, in his temple in 

Their procession moved through the streets of the capital 
until it came to a stop in front of a simple bungalow at 17 
York Road. On its doorsteps, those delegates from an India 
that venerated superstition and the occult had a rendezvous 
with the prophet of a new India of science and socialism. As 
once Hindu holy men had conferred upon ancient India’s 
kings their symbols of power, so the sannyasin had come to 
York Road to bestow their antique emblems of authority on 

* The antelope and tiger are considered by devout Hindus to be particularly 
clean animals ar/ using their skins as mats is therefore not likely to defile 
a caste Hindu. 

While the World Slept 307 

the man about to assume the leadership of a modem Indian 

They sprinkled Jawaharlal Nehru with holy water, smeared 
his forehead with sacred ash, laid their sceptre on his arms 
and draped him in the Cloth of God. To the man who had 
never ceased to proclaim the horror the word ‘religion’ 
inspired in him, their rite was a tiresome manifestation of all 
he deplored in his nation. Yet he submitted to it with almost 
cheerful humility. It was as if that proud rationalist had instinc- 
tively understood that in the awesome tasks awaiting him no 
possible source of aid, not even the occult he so scornfully 
dismissed, was to be totally ignored. 

In military cantonments, at official residences, naval stations, 
government offices; at Fort William in Calcutta where Clive 
had started it all. Fort Saint George in Madras, Viceregal Lodge 
in Simla; in Kashmir, the Nagaland, Sikkim and the jungles 
of Assam, thousands of Union Jacks slid down their flagstaffs 
for the last time. They were not being formally struck from 
the Indian skyline on which, for three centuries, they had 
symbolized Britain’s rule of the sub-continent. Mountbatten 
had made it clear it was his firm policy that die British flag 
should not be ceremonially hauled down. Nehru had agreed 
that ‘if the lowering of the Union Jack in any way offended 
British susceptibilities’, it should not take place. 

And so, as it did every evening, the Union Jack came down 
those thousands of flagstaffs at sunset, 14 August, to go quiet 
and unprotesting into Indian history. At sunrise 15 August, 
its place would be taken by the banner of an independent 

At the crest of the Khyber Pass, Capt. Kenneth Dance, adju- 
tant of the Khyber Rifles, the only Englishman left along that 
storied passage, listened as seven tollings of a bell shook the 
still evening air. A guardroom bell to toll each passing hour 
had been for decades a tradition on all stations of the Indian 
Army, few of whose sepoys, before 1939, could afford a watch 
and fewer still could tell time. As the last toll sounded, Dance 


Freedom at Midnight 

climbed to the quarter guard on the roof of the Landi Kotal 
fort. A bugler with a silver bugle stood poised to sound retreat. 
Below the two men, dominated by the fort’s walls, the road 
slid its sinuous course down the pass to Jamrud and the portal 
through which fifty centuries of invaders had spilled on to 
the plains of India. Every bend along that road, every ochre 
outcropping, bore its cement plaque to mark a battle of the 
army to which Dance belonged, or to commemorate the place 
where some of his countrymen had died fighting for the his- 
toric defile. 

The bugler stiffened and raised his instrument. Dance felt 
a twinge of sadness. An era was ending and the Khyber Pass 
with all its legends was leaving English hands for ever as he 
lowered the flag to the bugler’s melancholy call. He unclipped 
the flag from its halyard and folded it up, determined to bring 
it ‘in safe custody back to England from whence it had come’. 
Then he presented his regiment with a brass bell he’d bought 
at a ship chandler’s in Bombay to replace the guardroom bell. 
On it he’d inscribed one phrase: ‘Presented to the Khyber 
Rifles by Capt. Kenneth Dance. 14 August 1947.’ 

Halfway across the sub-continent in the tower that Was the 
repository of the Raj’s most sacred memories, another informal 
ceremony was taking place. The Tower of the Residency, Luck- 
now, was the only spot in the British Empire where the Union 
Jack was never lowered. The tower’s shell-scarred walls had 
been left unchanged since the day in 1857 when the 1000 sur- 
vivors in the Residency greeted the column that had ended 
their 87-day siege. The Tower had become the shrine of 
Imperial India, a symbol of that doughty British ability to hold 
fast in adversity and, some cynics claimed, of the arrogance 
that got them there in the first place. 

At 10.00 p.m. on the evening of 14 August, the tower’s 
caretaker, Warrant Officer J. R. Ireland, had hauled that Union 
Jack down for the last time. Now a team of sappers stood on 
the floor of the tower where ‘over the topmost roof our banner 
of England flew’. One of them took an axe and swiftly chopped 
the empty metal flagstaff from its base. Another hacked the 


While the World Slept 

base out of its masonry foundations. Then the hole was care- 
fully cemented over. No other nation’s flag was ever going to 
fly from Lucknow’s sacred staff. 

At 17 York Road, Jawaharlal Nehru had just finished washing 
the sannyasiri s ashes from his face and sat down to dinner 
when his telephone rang. His daughter Indira and his guest 
Padmaja Naidu could hear him in his study shouting to make 
himself heard over a bad line. 

Both women gasped when he returned. He slumped ashen 
in his chair, clasping his head in his hands, unable to speak. 
Finally, he shook his head and looked at them, his eyes glisten- 
ing with tears. His caller had been telephoning from Lahore. 
All the water in the Old City’s Hindu and Sikh quarter had 
been cut. People were going mad from thirst in the terrible 
summer heat, yet women and children coming out of their 
mahallas to beg a pail of water were being butchered by Mos- 
lem mobs. Fires were already raging out of control in half a 
dozen parts of the city. 

Stunned, his voice barely a whisper, he said: ‘How am I 
going to talk tonight? How am I going to pretend there’s joy 
in my heart for India’s independence when I know Lahore, 
our beautiful Lahore is burning?’ 

The vision haunting Jawaharlal Nehru loomed in all its horror 
before the eyes of a 20-year-old British captain of the Gurkhas. 
Riding in his jeep over the hump-backed railway bridge leading 
into Lahore, Capt. Robert Atkins counted half a dozen great 
geysers of sparks gushing into the air above the city’s darkened 
skyline. One image sprang to his mind; the blazing skyline of 
London on the night of the Great Fire Raid in 1940. 

Behind Atkins rode the 200 men of his company of 2/8 
Gurkhas, advance element of the column of 200 trucks and 
50 jeeps bringing his entire battalion to Lahore. Part of the 
Punjab Boundary Force, Atkins and his exhausted troops had 
been rushing to Lahore since dawn. Unfortunately, while 
55,000 men had been designated for the force, the Indian Army 


Freedom at Midnight 

had been able to get less than 10,000 of them into position by 
the eve of independence. 

Moving through the city towards his assigned bivouac area 
in the grounds of the Gymkhana Club, Atkins did not see 
a single human being moving. A sinister, ominous silence 
punctuated only by the roar of those distant fires enveloped 
his convoy. 

That young Britisher, born in Poona in an Indian Army 
cantonment, was riding into the city because a single ambition 
had ruled his life: to emulate the career of his father, a retired 
colonel in the army to which Atkins now belonged. 

Peering into the menacing night around him, Atkins sud- 
denly thought of the last evening he’d spent with his father a 
year before. They had been playing billiards in the Madras 
Club discussing politics. As they’d racked their cues, his father 
had said: ‘Yes, India’s going to be horrible bloodshed.’ 

‘My father,’ thought young Atkins, recalling his prophecy, 
‘knows India very well.’ 

New Delhi, Midnight 14 August 1947 

No arsonist’s hand had lit the little fire burning in the New 
Delhi garden of Dr Rajendra Prasad, the president of India’s 
Constituent Assembly. It was a Sacred Fire, consecrated and 
purified according to Vedic rite by the Brahmin priest who 
sat beside it rhythmically chanting his mantras. Together with 
earth, the common mother, and water, the giver of life, fire, 
the energizer and destroyer, composed the material trimurti, 
trinity, of Hinduism. It was the indispensable adjunct of every 
Hindu rite and feast, the impersonal inquisitor of the ordeal 
by fire, the quasi-divine agent of man’s ultimate return to the 
ashes from which he’d sprung. 

‘O Fire,’ intoned the Brahmin priest beside it, ‘you are the 
countenance of all the Gods and of all learned men. Yours is 
the power to penetrate the innermost recesses of the human 
heart and discover the truth.’ 

As he repeated his atonal chant, the learned men and women 


While the World Slept 

who would shortly become the first ministers of an indepen- 
dent India, filed past the fire. A second Brahmin sprinkled 
each with a few drops of water. Then they stepped over to a 
woman waiting with a copper vessel, its exterior white-washed, 
its lip covered with palm leaves. As the ministers paused before 
her, she dipped her right forefinger into the vessel, then, with 
the liquid on her fingertip, pressed a bright vermilion dot on 
to their foreheads. It was the ancient Hindu symbol of the 
‘third-eye’ which was reality behind appearances, a device to 
shelter its bearer from the influence of the evil eye or the 
malevolent designs of those who wished them ill. Thus pre- 
pared for the cruel burdens awaiting them, those men and 
women filed into their flag-draped Constituent Assembly Hall. 

The last papers were signed, the last despatch filed. The time 
had come to put away for ever the Viceroy’s cyphers and seals, 
all the paraphernalia of what had been one of the world’s most 
potent political offices. Alone in his study, Louis Mountbatten 
mused to himself. ‘For a little while longer I am the most 
powerful man on earth,’ he thought. 

He remembered a story of H. G. Wells, The Man Who Could 
Do Miracles , the tale of a man who possessed for one day the 
power to perform any miracle he chose. ‘I’m sitting here, living 
out the last minutes of this incredible office in which men 
really have had the power to perform miracles,’ he told himself. 
‘I should perform a miracle. But what miracle?’ 

Suddenly he sat upright. ‘By God,’ he said out loud, ‘I know. 
I’ll make the Begum of Palanpur a Highness!’ With gleeful 
energy he began to stab the buzzers that summoned his aides 
to his office. 

Mountbatten and the Nawab of Palanpur had become fast 
friends during the Prince of Wales’s tour. During a visit as 
Supreme Commander to the Nawab and his able, attractive, 
Australian wife, the Begum, in 1945, the Nawab’s British Resi- 
dent, Sir William Croft, came to Mountbatten. The Nawab’s 
wife had become a Moslem, he said, she had adopted the sari 
and all other local customs, was performing wonderful social 


Freedom at Midnight 

work, but the Nawab was heartbroken because the Viceroy 
would not accord her the title ‘Highness’ as she was not an 

On returning to Delhi, Mountbatten had intervened person- 
ally with the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, but to no avail. London 
would not agree to a step which might start a wave of princes 
marrying Europeans and undermine the whole concept of the 
princely caste. 

As soon as his aides assembled, Mountbatten announced 
his intentions to elevate the Begum of Palanpur to the dignity 
of ‘Highness’. 

‘But,’ one protested, ‘you can’t do that!’ 

‘Who says I can’t?’ laughed Mountbatten. ‘I’m the Viceroy, 
aren’t I?’ He ordered someone to go out in search of a paper 
scroll, then he had a secretary inscribe it with a few ringing 
phrases elevating the Nawab’s Australian Begum ‘by the grace 
of God’, to the dignity of Highness. The result was placed on 
his desk at 11.58. A smile of the purest pleasure illuminating 
his face, Louis Mountbatten took his pen and performed the 
last official action to be exercised by a Viceroy of India/ 

* Mountbatten’s final gesture was not without its sequel. A few days later, 
he received a lyrical note from the Nawab’s British Resident, Croft, who said: 
‘I can never thank you enough. Your act was the most far-reaching and 
kindest gesture you could have performed for Palanpur. I am as grateful to 
you as the Nawab, and if ever by any chance I should be in a position to 
do you a service, do not hesitate to call on me.’ 

Three years later, in 1950, Mountbatten was Fourth Sea Lord at the Admir- 
alty. He was, among other things, responsible for the Navy’s customs’ privi- 
leges, duty-free alcohol, cigarettes and other items considered vital supports 
for the morale of H M’s seamen. Pressed by the Attlee government to find 
additional revenues, the Collector of Customs announced his intention of 
abolishing these privileges. Everyone in the naval hierarchy tried, unsuccess- 
fully, to persuade the gentleman to change his mind. Mountbatten finally 
advised the Secretary of Admiralty, Sir John Lang, that he intended to try 
himself. Useless, Lang replied, everyone had tried, the Collector refused to 
budge and since it was a popular financial move, it was certain to zip through 
the Cabinet. 

Mountbatten persisted, however, and finally found himself being ushered 
into the office of the Collector of Customs. To his surprise, the man who 


While the World Slept 

Outside, at almost the same instant, his personal standard 
as the Viceroy of India, a Union Jack emblazoned with the 
Star of India, came down the flagstaff of Viceroy’s House/ 

From the vast reaches of time, long before man’s memory was 
transposed from legend to stone, the wail of the conch shell 
on the seacoasts of India had been the herald of the dawn. 
Now a man draped in khadi stood poised at the edge of a 
gallery overlooking New Delhi’s packed Constituent Assembly, 
waiting to herald a new dawn for millions of human beings. 
Clutched in the crook of his arm was a spiralling shell glittering 
in rose and purple. He was, in a sense, a bugler, a bugler for 
that Congress army in white caps and flopping white shirt 
tails that had swarmed down the alleys and streets of India 
clamouring for freedom, a horde of ghosts hacking down the 
pillars of an empire. 

Below him, on the speaker’s stand, was Jawaharlal Nehru. 
Twisted into the button- hole of his cotton vest was the flower 
which, with the exception of the nine years he’d spent in 
British jails, had been the ever-present badge of his elegant 
person, a freshly plucked rose. On the walls around him, the 
stately oil paintings of the Viceroys of India had been replaced, 
their gilded frames filled this evening with green, white and 
orange banners. 

Ranged on the packed assembly benches facing Nehru, in 
saris and khadi, princely robes and dinner jackets, were the 
representatives of the nation to be born this night. The people 
they represented were an amalgam of races and religions, lan- 
guages and cultures, of a diversity and contrast unmatched on 
the globe. Theirs was a land of supreme spiritual attainment 

rose to greet him was Sir William Croft. ‘How wonderful to see you!* * 
exclaimed Croft. ‘You know, I can never thank you enough for what you 
did for the Begum of Palanpur.’ 

‘Ah,’ said Mountbatten, ‘but you can.’ The Navy’s privileges were pre- 

* It is now hung in the Norman Abbey of Romsey, the last Viceroy’s parish 


Freedom at Midnight 

and the most debasing misery on earth, a land whose greatest 
riches were its paradoxes, whose people were more fertile than 
its fields; a land obsessed by God and beset with natural cala- 
mities unsurpassed in cruelty and dimension; a land of past 
accomplishment and present concern, whose future was 
compromised by problems more taxing than those confronting 
any other assembly of humans on earth. Yet, for all that, for all 
her ills, their India was also one of the supreme and enduring 
symbols protruding above the cultural horizons of mankind. 

The India which those men and women represented would 
be a nation of 275 million Hindus, 70 million of them Untouch- 
ables; 35 million Moslems; 7 million Christians; 6 million Sikhs; 
100,000 Parsees and 24,000 lews whose forebears had fled the 
destruction of Solomon’s Temple during the Babylonian 

Few of the people in the hall could talk to each other in 
their native language; their only common tongue was English. 
Their nation would harbour fifteen official languages and 845 
dialects. The Urdu of the deputies of the Punjab was read 
from right to left; the Hindi of their neighbours in the United 
Provinces from left to right. The Tamil of the Madrassis was 
sometimes read up and down and other dialects were decoded 
like the symbols on a pharaonic frieze. Even their gestures 
were dissimilar. When a dark-skinned Madrassi from the south 
nodded his head, he meant ‘yes’. When a pale northerner made 
the same movement he meant ‘no’. 

India would include a leper population the size of Switzer- 
land, as many priests as there were Belgians in Belgium, enough 
beggars to populate all of Holland, 11 million holy men, 20 
million aborigines, some like the Nagas of Nagaland still hunt- 
ing human heads. 10 million Indians were essentially nomads, 
exercising hereditary occupations as snake charmers, fortune 
tellers, gypsies, jugglers, water diviners, magicians, tight-rope 
walkers, herb vendors, which kept them constantly moving 
from village to village. 38 thousand Indians were born every 
day, a quarter of them to die before the age of five, to million 
other Indians died each year from malnutrition, undernourish- 

While the World Slept 315 

ment and disease like smallpox, eradicated in most parts of 
the earth. 

Their great sub-continent was the most intensely spiritual 
area in the world; birthplace of one great religion, Buddhism; 
motherland of Hinduism; deeply influenced by Islam; a land 
whose Gods came in a bewildering array of forms and figures; 
whose religious practices ranged from yoga and the most inten- 
sive meditation of which the human spirit was capable, to 
animal sacrifice and debauched sexual orgies performed in 
clandestine jungle temples. The pantheon of the Hindus con- 
tained over 3 million deities, a God for every mythic manifes- 
tation and practical need imaginable. There were Gods and 
Goddesses for the dance, poetry, song; for death, destruction 
and disease; Goddesses like Markhai Devi at whose feet goats 
were sacrificed to check cholera epidemics, and Gods like Deva 
Imdra who was begged to give to his faithful carnal capacities 
akin to those displayed on India’s great temple friezes. God 
was held manifest in banyan trees, in India’s 136 million 
monkeys, in the heroes of her mythological epics, in her 200 
million sacred cows; worshipped in her snakes, particularly 
cobras, who each year killed 20,000 of the humans who vener- 
ated them. India’s sects included Zoroastrians, descendants of 
ancient Persia’s fire worshippers, and Jains, a Hindu offshoot, 
whose adherents in the land of the world’s lowest life expect- 
ancy held all existence so sacred that they refused to eat meat 
and most vegetables, and went about with a gauze mask over 
their faces so they could not inadvertently inhale and kill an 

The nation would embrace some of the richest men in the 
world and 300 million peasants living on the frontiers of exist- 
ence, dispersed over what might have been one of the earth’s 
richest surfaces and was one of its poorest 83% of India’s 
population was illiterate. Her per capita income averaged five 
cents a day and a quarter of the people in her two great cities 
ate, slept, defecated, fornicated, and died in their open streets. 
India received an average rainfall of 114 cms a year, but her 
skies unleashed it in an appalling inequity of time and space. 

3 J 6 Freedom at Midnight 

Most came in the drenching downpours of the monsoon and 
over a third of it ran unused to the sea. 300,000 square kilo- 
metres of her land, an area the size of Germany, got no rain 
at all, while other areas got so much water that the salt table 
was almost at the earth’s surface, rendering its cultivation 
extremely difficult. India contained three of the great industrial 
families of the world, the Birlas, the Tatas and the Dalmias, 
but her economy was essentially feudal, benefiting a handful 
of wealthy landowners and capitalists. 

Her imperial rulers had made no effort to industrialize her. 
Her exports were almost exclusively commodities: jute, tea, 
cotton, tobacco. Most of her machinery had to be imported. 
India’s per capita consumption of electricity was laughably 
low, one two-hundredth that of the United States. Her soil 
contained at least a tenth of the world’s reserves of iron ore 
but her steel production was barely a million tons a year. She 
had 3800 miles of coastline and a fishing industry so primitive 
she couldn’t even offer her population a pound of fish per 
capita a year. 

Indeed, to those tense, expectant men and women filling 
the benches of the Delhi assembly hall, it might well have 
seemed that problems were the only heritage being left them 
by their departing colonizers. No such melancholy thought, 
however, animated their gathering. Instead, its keynote was 
the good feeling with which India’s former rulers were 
regarded, and a touching if naive belief that somehow their 
departure was going to ease the terrible burdens under which 
she agonized. 

The man upon whom those burdens would now weigh most 
heavily rose to speak. After his phone call from Lahore, Jawa- 
harlal Nehru had had neither the time nor the inclination to 
write a speech. His words were extemporaneous, heart-felt. 

‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny,’ he declared, 
‘and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, 
not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the 
stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will 
awake to life and freedom.’ One after another, the eloquent 


While the World Slept 

phrases fell from his lips, yet for Jawaharlal Nehru, that sublime 
moment of achievement had been fatally flawed. ‘I was hardly 
aware of what I was saying,’ he would later tell his sister; ‘the 
words came welling up, but my mind could only conceive the 
awful picture of Lahore in flames.’ 

‘A moment comes,’ Nehru continued, ‘which comes but 
rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, 
when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation long sup- 
pressed finds utterance. 

‘At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, 
and the trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the 
grandeur of her successes and her failures. Through good and 
ill fortunes alike, she has never lost sight of that quest or 
forgotten the ideal which gave her strength. We end today a 
period of ill-fortune and India discovers herself again. 

‘This is no time for petty and destructive criticism,’ he con- 
cluded, ‘no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to 
build the noble mansion of free India where all her children 
may dwell.’ 

At the stroke of midnight, Nehru moved, they would all 
rise and pledge themselves to the service of India and her 
people. Outside a rippling wave of thunder clattered across 
the midnight sky and a drenching monsoon rain spattered the 
thousands of ordinary Indians jamming the area around the 
hall. Clutching bicycles, in white Congress caps and shapeless 
tunics of homespun cotton, in white shirts and slacks, saris 
and business suits, they stood silent in the downpour, their 
exuberance stilled by the awesomeness of the moment 

In the hall, the hands of the clock over the speaker’s stand 
crept up to the roman numeral XII. Heads bowed, the rep- 
resentatives sat in meditative silence, waiting for the chimes 
of midnight. Not a figure stirred as those twelve heavy tolls 
marked the end of a day and an era. 

As the echoes of the twelfth stroke fell, a toneless shriek 
reverberated through the hall from the figure poised in the 
gallery, a primitive call from across India’s trackless centuries. 

318 Freedom at Midnight 

To those Indian politicians, the conch shell’s bleat heralded 
the birth of their nation. To the world, it played retreat for 
the passing of an age. 

That age had begun on a soft summer day in a little Spanish 
port in 1492 when Christopher Columbus sailed off across the 
endless green seas to the edge of the world in search of India 
and found America by mistake. Four and a half centuries of 
human history bore the imprimatur of that discovery and its 
consequences: the economic, religious and physical exploit- 
ation of the non-white masses circling the globe by the white, 
Western, Christian masses at its core. Aztec, Inca, Swahili, 
Egyptian, Iraqi, Hottentot, Algerian, Burmese, Filipino, 
Moroccan, Vietnamese, an unending stream of peoples, 
nations and civilizations over 450 years had passed through 
the colonial experience; decimated, impoverished, educated, 
converted, culturally enriched or debased, economically 
exploited or stimulated, but finally, irrevocably altered by it. 

Now the famished hordes of a continent in prayer had 
claimed their freedom from the architects of the greatest 
empire those centuries had produced, a realm that dwarfed in 
dimension, population and importance the domains of Rome, 
Babylon, Carthage and Greece. With the crown jewel of the 
British Empire prised away by the brown Asiatic hands to 
which it belonged, no other colonial empire could long endure. 
Their rulers might try with rhetoric and arms to check history’s 
onrushing tide; theirs would be futile, bloody gestures con- 
demned by this moment to failure. Irrevocably, definitively, 
the independence of India closed a chapter in man’s experi- 
ence. The conch shell’s call in New Delhi’s Constituent 
Assembly that August night marked the beginning of the post- 
war history of the world. 

Outside the assembly hall, the rain had stopped and a jubi- 
lant mood swept over the crowd. As Nehru emerged, thou- 
sands of happy people rushed forward, threatening to engulf 
him and the ministers behind him in their embrace. Watching 
the thin screen of policemen trying to hold them back, an 
enormous smile animated Nehru’s face. 


While the World Slept 

‘You know,’ he said to an aide standing beside him, ‘exactly 
ten years ago, in London, I had a fight with Linlithgow, the 
Viceroy. I got so mad I shouted “I’ll be damned if we don t 
have our independence in ten years”. He answered “Oh no, 
you won’t”,’ the Prime Minister recalled with a laugh. “‘India 
will not be free in my time Mr Nehru,” he said, “nor in yours 


That grand and guilty edifice, the British Raj, was no more. 
Beyond New Delhi’s Constituent Assembly hall, in the vastness 
of the two new states, the momentous changes portended by 
the conch shell’s call found their echo in jubilant cheers and 
a thousand small gestures. In Bombay, a policeman nailed a 
sign bearing the word ‘closed' to the gates of the citadel of 
white supremacy, the Bombay Yacht Club. Henceforth, those 
precincts in which three generations of pukkasahibs and mem- 
sahibs had sipped their whiskies undisturbed by native stares 
would be a mess for cadets of the Indian Navy. 

In Calcutta, eager hands tore down the signs of the city’s 
central thoroughfare. Clive Street became Subhas Road, named 
for an Indian nationalist who’d aligned himself with Japan 
against the British in World War II. In Simla, at the stroke of 
midnight, hundreds of Indians in saris and dhotis ran laughing 
down the Mall, the avenue on which no Indian had been 
allowed to appear in his native dress. In Firpo’s in Calcutta, 
Falletti’s in Lahore, the Taj in Bombay, hundreds more invaded 
the restaurants and dance floors that had been reserved for 
guests in dinner jackets and evening gowns.* 

Delhi celebrated with lights. The austere, hard-working capi- 
tal was ablaze with them. New Delhi’s Connaught Circus, the 
narrow alleys of Old Delhi, were hung in green, saffron and 
white lights. Temples, mosques and Sikh guru dwaras were 

» One member of the Constituent Assembly had even wanted a clause in 
India’s constitution denying a public place the right to require the Ra,s 
favourite apparel, the dinner jacket, for its guests. 

3 2 ° Freedom at Midnight 

outlined in garlands of light bulbs. So too, was the Red Fort 
of the Moghul Emperors. New Delhi’s newest temple, Birla 
Mandir, with its curlicue spires and domes hung with lights, 
looked to one passer-by like a hallucination of Ludwig of 
Bavaria. In the Bhangi sweepers’ colony, among whose 
Untouchables Gandhi had often dwelt, independence had 
brought a gift many of those wretched people had never known 
- light. The municipality had offered them the candles and 
the little oil lamps flickering in the gloom of their huts to 
honour their new freedom. On bicycles, tonga carts, cars, even 
on an elephant draped in rich velvet tapestry, crowds swept 
towards the centre of Delhi to sing, cheer and walk in a buoyant 
mood of self-congratulation. The restaurants and cafes of Con- 
naught Place were thronged. Every member of that gigantic 
army of white-shirted bureaucrats for which Delhi was notori- 
ous, seemed to have gravitated to its pavements. 

The bar of the Imperial Hotel, a sanctuary of Delhi’s former 
rulers, swarmed with celebrating Indians. Just after midnight, 
one of them climbed on to the bar and asked the crowd to 
join him in singing their new national anthem. They gleefully 
accepted his invitation, but as they started through the chorus 
of the hymn, written by India’s great national poet, Tagore, 
most of them made a disconcerting discovery: they didn’t 
know the words. 

At Maiden’s hotel in Old Delhi, the most famous establish- 
ment in the city, a beautiful Indian girl in a sari danced from 
table to table, twisting a red dot, a tilak, for good luck on to 
the forehead of everyone in the place with a lipstick tube. 

In the complaisant shadows of a garden near Connaught 
Circus, Kartar Singh, a journalist, celebrated his country’s free- 
dom with an intensely personal gesture. He used it as the 
pretext to kiss for the first time Aisha Ali, a pretty medical 
student he’d met a few days earlier. Their embrace was the 
first gesture of a long and marvellous love story beginning at 
a most inauspicious moment. Their particular passion was 
going to run athwart the passions about to sweep northern 
India. Kartar Duggal Singh was a Sikh. Aisha Ali was Moslem. 


While the World Slept 

Despite the exuberance of Independence Night, the shadows 
of that coming storm lay already over parts of the capital. 
In their neighbourhoods in Old Delhi, many Moslems were 
whispering a new slogan put out by fanatics of the Moslem 
League: ‘We got Pakistan by right - we’ll take Hindustan by 
force.’ That morning, a mullah in an Old Delhi mosque had 
reminded his faithful at prayers that Moslems had ruled Delhi 
for centuries and, ‘ Ishallel - Allah willing,’ they would again. 
Meanwhile, Hindu and Sikh refugees from the Punjab, packed 
into makeshift refugees’ camps around Delhi, threatened to 
turn the capital’s Moslem neighbourhoods into a bonfire to 
celebrate independence. 

V. P. Menon, the brilliant bureaucrat who had redrafted 
Mountbatten’s partition plan and coaxed so many princes into 
acceding to India, passed the midnight hour in his sitting-room 
with his teenage daughter. When the sound of conch shells 
and cheering crowds drifted into their quiet parlour, Menon’s 
daughter leaped up and cried out her delight. Her father 
remained fixed in his chair, no exuberance on his face. 

‘Now,’ he sighed, ‘our nightmares really start.’ 

For millions of others on the sub-continent, however, mid- 
night, 14 August marked the beginning of a party 24 hours 
long. In the fort at Landi Kotal in the Khyber whole sheep 
roasted over a dozen roaring fires. The officers and men of 
the Khyber Rifles and the Pathan tribesmen who’d been their 
traditional enemies celebrated with a tribal banquet. The com- 
manding officer offered his adjutant and guest of honour Capt. 
Kenneth Dance, the piece de resistance , a sheep’s liver wrapped 
in fatty yellow intestines. At midnight, the excited tribesmen 
grabbed their rifles and, shrieking ‘the Khyber is ours, the 
Khyber is ours’, sent a pound of lead into the night air. 

At Cawnpore, a city cursed by memories of the massacres 
that had occurred there during the Mutiny, Englishmen and 
Indians embraced publicly. In Ahmedabad, the textile capital 
where Gandhi had founded his first Indian ashram, a young 
school teacher who’d been jailed for trying to hoist India’s flag 


Freedom at Midnight 

in 1942 was given the honour of raising it over the town hall. 

In Lucknow, scores had been invited to a midnight flag- 
raising at the Residence. The engraved invitations had read 
‘National Dress: Dhotis will be suitable’. Rajeshwar Dayal, an 
Indian with fourteen years in the ICS, had been shocked 
reading it. He didn’t even own a dhoti. Such a ceremony under 
his British employers would certainly have been in white tie 
and tails. The reception itself was utterly different from the 
stiffly formal affairs of the Raj. As soon as the gates opened, 
the long table loaded with sweets disappeared under a swarm 
of saris and struggling children. Watching India’s flag take its 
place over the Residency, a curious thought occurred to Dayal, 
one which said much about the manner in which the British 
had ruled his country. In fourteen years service in the ICS, 
he thought, he had had many British colleagues. But he had 
never had a British friend. 

In Madras, Bangalore, Patna, in thousands of cities, towns 
and villages, people entered temples at midnight to cast rose 
petals at the feet of the Gods, their poignant plea for the 
blessing of the cosmos on their new nation. In Benares, the 
leading pastry maker earned a considerable sum peddling an 
independence cake in India’s national colours, its frosting 
made of oranges, pistachios and milk. 

Nowhere was Independence Night celebrated with more 
fervour and enthusiasm than in the great port of Bombay. 
There, on pavements that often had been slippery with the 
blood spilled in lathi charges, in that city whose history was 
inextricably intertwined with India’s independence struggle, 
whose streets had witnessed so many demonstrations, hartals, 
and strikes, an entire people went wild with joy. From the 
palatial apartment houses of Marine Drive to the distant slums 
of Parel, from the villas of Malabar Hill to the clutter of the 
Thieves Market, Bombay was a lake of light. ‘Midnight has 
become midday,’ wrote one newsman, ‘it was a new Diwali, a 
new Id, a New Year’s Eve - it was all the festivals of a land of 
festivals rolled into one - for this was the Festival of Freedom.’ 

Something less than outright rejoicing inaugurated that fes- 


While the World Slept 

tival in a number of dinners and banquets across India. They 
took place in what had been her old princely states. The day 
of the Maharajas was over and for some of them, still unre- 
conciled to the loss of their privileges and the end of their 
world of pomp and splendour, ,15 August would be a day 
of mourning. In his brightly lit banquet hall, the Nizam of 
Hyderabad offered a farewell banquet to his British administra- 
tors whose role was ending along with his own. Despite the 
gaiety of the Nizam’s numerous progeny and the elegance of 
the women present, the dinner had the lugubrious air of a 
wake. At the end of the dinner, shortly before midnight, the 
old miser, dressed in a pair of torn and faded trousers, stood 
to propose a final toast to the King Emperor. John Peyton, an 
English guest, scrutinized the Nizam’s mournful face. ‘How 
sad,’ he thought, ‘two hundred years of history ending in one 
brief, pathetic gesture.’ 

For many Indians, the night they and their countrymen had 
dreamed of for years was a frightful horror. To Lt-Col. J. T. 
Sataravala, a Parsee of the Frontier Force Rifles, it would always 
be associated with the most sickening sight his war-hardened 
eyes had ever seen. It was the gruesomely mutilated bodies of 
an entire Hindu family in a flaming ruin in the Baluchistan 
city of Quetta. Beside them, mutilated with equal savagery, 
were the bodies of the brave and generous Moslem family that 
had offered them shelter. Sushila Nayar, a beautiful young 
doctor assigned by Gandhi to a camp of 20,000 refugees in 
the western Punjab, had spent two years in jail and given most 
of her brief adult life to achieving the moment midnight 14 
August represented. Now, it brought her no joy, no sense of 
fulfilment. She was conscious only of the misery of her thou- 
sands of charges most of them listening in the night for the 
sounds of the Moslem hordes they were certain would come 
to slaughter them. 

Lahore, the city that should have been the gayest spot on 
the sub-continent, was a scene of devastation. Capt. Robert 
Atkins, who’d led his Gurkhas into the city at sundown, found 
his camp besieged by pathetic, frightened Hindus. Clutching 

3 2 4 Freedom at Midnight 

babies, bedding, a suitcase or two, they begged to be allowed 
inside the protective circle of his soldiers. Almost a hundred 
thousand Hindus and Sikhs were trapped inside Old Lahore’s 
walled city, their water cut, fires raging around them, mobs 
of Moslems stalking the alleys outside their mahallas waiting 
to pounce on anyone venturing out. One mob had set the 
city s most famous Sikh guru dwara next to the Shah Alimi 
Gate on fire, 'then shrieked with glee at the screams of the 
wretched Sikhs being roasted alive inside. 

Calcutta, the city which should have been exploding in vio- 
lence, was undergoing a bewildering metamorphosis. It had 
begun timidly, tentatively before sundown when a procession 
of Hindus and Moslems had marched through the city towards 
Gandhi’s headquarters at Hydari House. In its wake the city’s 
atmosphere had begun to change. In the violent jungles of 
Keldanga Road and around Sealdah station, Hindu and Mos- 
lem goondas had sheathed their daggers to join in hanging the 
Indian flag from balconies and lamp-posts. Sheikhs opened 
the doors of their mosques to the adherents of Kali, and they 
in turn invited Moslems to their temples to contemplate the 
grotesque image of the Goddess of Destruction. 

Men who would have been prepared to cut each other’s 
throats 24 hours earlier, now shook hands in the street. Women 
and children, Hindu and Moslem alike, offered sweets to 
members of the opposite community. The city that evening 
reminded Kumar Bose, a Bengali writer, of the Christmas Eve 
scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, when French and 
German soldiers emerged from their trenches to forget for a 
brief moment that they were enemies. 

While India celebrated, the great house which had been the 
repository of Britain’s imperial power in India was undergoing 
a revolution. From one end of the house to the other, servants 
rushed along the corridors, obscuring or snatching away any 
seal or symbol likely to offend the sensibilities of India’s newly 
independent citizens. Mountbatten was determined that, on 
their Independence Day, no Indians visiting what was now 


While the World Slept 

Government House would be confronted with any distasteful 
reminders of the age just past. 

One team of servants did nothing but go from room to 
room replacing stationery bearing the offending words ‘Vice- 
roy^ House’ with new ones engraved ‘Government House’. 
Another screened off the enormous seal above Durbar Hall. 
One set of seals did not change however. Traditionally, the 
Viceroy’s cypher had been his personal insignia and the cigar 
bands, matchboxes, soap bars and butter patties of the new 
Government House continued to carry Mountbatten’s Vis- 
count’s coronet above his ‘M of B’. 

As their work was going on, a delegation of Indian leaders 
sent by the Constituent Assembly arrived. Rajendra Prasad, 
the president of the assembly, formally invited the ex-Viceroy 
to become India’s first Governor-General. It was the second 
honour the admiral had received that evening. A few moments 
before, he had learned that his cousin George VI, in recognition 
of his accomplishments in India, had elevated him a rank in 
the peerage, from Viscount to Earl. 

Mountbatten accepted Prasad’s invitation, pledging to serve 
India as if he were himself an Indian. Then Nehru gave Mount- 
batten an envelope containing the list of the men who, with 
his approval, would constitute the first government of an inde- 
pendent India. 

Mountbatten took out a decanter of port and personally 
filled his visitors’ glasses. When he had done so, he raised his 
own and said ‘To India’. After a sip, Nehru in turn raised his 
to Mountbatten. ‘To King George VI’, he said. 

When they’d left, before going to bed, Mountbatten opened 
the envelope Nehru had handed him. As he did so, he burst 
into laughter. In the haste of this great evening, Nehru had 
not had time to set down the names of independent India’s 
first Cabinet. It contained a blank sheet of paper. 

In the dark and cavernous Lahore railway station, a handful 
of Englishmen made their way towards the waiting Bombay 
Express. They were virtually the last minor players in an army 

326 Freedom at Midnight 

of British administrators, policemen and soldiers who had 
made the Punjab the pride of British India, the repository of 
the best of Britain’s achievements on the sub-continent. Now 
they were going home and leaving to other hands the canals, 
the highways, the railways, the bridges, they and their forebears 
had built. 

As they walked to the train, a group of railway workers 
listlessly washed the station platform with a hose. A few hours 
earlier, the station had been the site of a terrible massacre of 
fleeing Hindus. Bill Rich, the Englishman who had handed 
over charge of Lahore’s police a few hours earlier, noticed an 
appalling sight: a group of porters wheeling a luggage cart 
down the platform. Piled on to it, like bundles heading for 
the guard’s van, was a stack of corpses. Rich himself had to 
step over a corpse lying on the platform to get his foot on to 
the stairs leading to his carriage. What amazed him was not the 
sight of that mangled body at his feet, but his own indifference 
to it, his sudden awareness of how hardened he’d become to 
the horrors of the Punjab. 

Rule Dean, the Amritsar police chief who’d sent his band 
to play Gilbert and Sullivan in the town square, stared in 
melancholy gloom from the window of his compartment as 
the train left the city that had been his responsibility. He could 
see on the horizon flames devouring dozens of the villages it 
had been his duty to protect. Silhouetted by their roseate glow 
against the night sky, he caught sight of the marauding 
Sikh bands destroying them, dancing a kind of wild ballet 
around the flames. He had a feeling of ‘terrible, overwhelming 

‘Instead of handing over our charge in a dignified way,’ he 
thought, ‘we are leaving chaos behind us.’ Then, as the express 
neared Delhi, a dining-car was attached to the train. Suddenly, 
there, among the fresh linen and polished silver, the Punjab, 
to the former Amritsar police chief who in three months’ time 
would be selling plastics door to door in Welwyn Garden City, 
seemed a world away. 


While the World Slept 

The ruin at 151 Beliaghata Road was silent. At its gate, a handful 
of non-violent Hindu and Moslem volunteers stood watch. 
Not a single lamp bulb, not even a candle flickered from the 
broken windows of Hydari House. Nothing, not even the 
events of this momentous night, had been allowed to intrude 
on the firmly established routine of the men and women inside. 
In the spacious room which served as their communal dormi- 
tory, they lay stretched out on straw pallets. On one of them, 
next to his neatly aligned wooden clogs, his Gita , his dentures 
and his steel-rimmed spectacles, was the familiar, bald-headed 
figure. When the clocks had chimed that magic midnight and 
India had awakened to life and freedom, Mohandas Karam- 
chand Gandhi had been sound asleep. 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom' 


Benares , 15 August 1947 

At the first cool breath of approaching dawn, the mists began 
to rise from the water. As they had since time immemorial, 
the multitudes came with them to the banks of the great and 
sacred river, the Mother Ganges, the Supreme Giver of life, to 
search a passage to eternity in a ritual immersion in its waters. 
Nothing might be more appropriate than that, with the dawn- 
ing of 15 August 1947, Benares, man's oldest city, should offer 
the unique homage of its morning rites for the birth of the 
world's newest nation. 

Those rites were a constantly renewed expression of the 
ancient passion joining the Hindus and their sacred river. Their 
mystic union was Hinduism's expression of that instinctive 
human need to propitiate the inexplicable forces governing 
man’s destiny. From an ice cave at the foot of a Himalayan 
snowbed 10,300 feet high, the Ganges ran 1500 miles to the 
grey waters of the Bay of Bengal, traversing on its way one of 
the most torrid, over-populated areas on the globe. It was a 
fickle stream, regularly savaging the lands of the peasants who 
adored it with floods of appalling intensity and duration. Its 
route was sprinkled with the ruins of deserted towns and 
villages, mute witnesses to the abrupt shifts its meanderings 
had taken over the centuries. 

Yet, despite its tempestuous nature, every foot of its water- 
course was considered propitious, and none more so than 
those along the gentle four-mile curve it made as it swung 
past Benares. Since the dawn of history, since the time of its 
contemporaries, Babylon, Nineveh and Tyre, Hindus had come 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom ’ 

there to bathe in the Ganges, to drink its water, to beseech 
the favour of some capricious God. 

Now the silent throngs flowed across the ghats , the stone 
terraces scaling down Benares’ steep river banks to the water’s 
edge. Each pilgrim bore a bouquet of flowers and a little lamp 
of camphor oil, its flame the symbol of light dispersing the 
shadows of ignorance. In the river, thousands more, a division 
of the devout, were already standing waist deep in the slow- 
moving water, all regards turned east, each rigid, silent figure 
clutching his flickering lamp, so that from a distance their 
vacillating lights seemed to skip over the surface of the water 
like a horde of fireflies. 

Every eye fixed on the eastern horizon, they waited for the 
daily renewal of the heavens’ most wondrous miracle, the 
appearance of a reddish disc sliding up from the entrails of 
the earth, the God Vishnu in his incarnation as the sun. 
As its edge slipped into the morning sky, an ejaculation of 
prayer burst from those thousands of throats. Then, in 
gratitude for one further renewal of God’s greatest miracle, 
they cast their lamps and flowers upon the waters of the 

In the city, as it did every morning, the honour of being 
the first person to step across the threshold of the Temple of 
Gold, Benares’ foremost shrine, belonged this morning to Pan- 
dit Brawani Shankar. Few men in Benares felt more intensely 
the joy of this dawn than that ageing man of God. For years, 
Pandit Shankar had offered Indian nationalists fleeing from 
the British CID the sanctuary of his shrine. 

A flask of Ganges water and a vial of sandal-wood paste in 
his hands, Pandit Shankar marched through his temple’s 
gloom towards a stumpy granite outcropping. That heavy 
thumb rising in the darkness was the most precious Hindu 
relic in Benares. Shankar’s forebears had earned their descend- 
ants the right to be its perpetual custodians by hiding it from 
the Moghul hordes of the Emperor Aurangzeb. That he 
should bow before it this August morning, humbly thanking 
the Gods for the birth of modern India, was a uniquely 


Freedom at Midnight 

appropriate gesture. The cult that piece of stone represented 
was the oldest form of worship known to man. 

It was the lingam , a stone phallus symbolizing the sexual 
organ of the God Shiva, the symbol of force and the regener- 
ative power of nature. Benares was the centre of the cult that 
worshipped it. Phalli studded the city, rising from almost every 
one of its temples and ghats. At the sun’s first rays, thousands 
of Hindus joined Shankar, expressing their gratitude at the 
reincarnation of their ancient nation by lovingly caressing 
those bulbous stone stumps with sandal-wood paste, Ganges 
water and cow dung, garlanding them with marigolds, offering 
them rose petals and the bitter leaves of Shiva’s favourite tree, 
the bilva .* 

As the colours of dawn brightened the city, a parade of 
Untouchables, backs bent under bunches of faggots and logs, 
descended the steps of the most hallowed spot in Benares, the 
Manikarnika ghat. A few minutes later, four men carrying a 
bamboo stretcher on their shoulders appeared at the head of 
the steps. In front of them marched a fifth man gently stroking 
a gong, chanting ‘Ram is Truth’. His words \vere a reminder 
to all those watching the procession that they, too, would one 
day come to the same end as the figure wrapped in a cotton 
winding-sheet on the stretcher. 

For centuries, to die in Benares had been the highest blessing 

* The origins of the lingam and the cult of its worship are explained by a 
colourful Hindu legend. Shiva and his wife Durga, both drunk at the time, 
were surprised in the act of copulation by the visit of a delegation of their 
fellow Gods led by Vishnu. Absorbed in alcohol and their amatory athletics, 
the divine couple ignored their visitors. Shocked by such behaviour, their 
fellow Gods cursed them both and left. 

When Shiva and Durga were informed of what had happened, their shame 
was so intense they died in the position in which they’d been surprised. ‘My 
shame,’ Shiva proclaimed, ‘has killed me, but it has also given me new life 
and a new shape, that of the lingam .’ Henceforth, he proclaimed, his priests 
were to teach men to ‘embrace the worship of my lingam. It is white. It has 
three eyes and five faces. It is arrayed in a tiger’s skin. It existed before the 
world and it is the origin and the beginning of all beings. It disperses our 
terrors and our fears, and grants us the object of all our desires.’ 


‘ Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom ’ 

to which a devout Hindu could aspire. Death inside a circle 
36 miles in circumference around the city liberated a soul from 
the ceaseless cycle of its reincarnations, and entitled it to join 
for eternity the wholly enlightened in the paradise of Brahma. 
That privilege had made Benares a city to which pilgrims came 
in search not of life but of death. 

The bearers brought the remains of the first of this morn- 
ing’s claimants to Benares’ boon to the river’s edge for a last 
immersion in the Ganges. One of them pried open the jaws 
of the anonymous face on the stretcher, and sprinkled a few 
drops of water down the dead man’s throat. Then they placed 
his body on a waiting pyre. The Untouchables serving the ghat 
covered the corpse with a pyramid of sandal- wood logs and 
poured a pail of ghee , clarified butter, over it. 

Skull shaven, his body purified by ritual ablutions, the 
defunct’s eldest son circled the pyre five times. Then an acolyte 
from the nearby temple to Ganesh, the elephant God, handed 
him a torch fired at the temple’s eternal flame. He thrust it 
on to the pyre. A rush of flame burst through the log pyramid. 

The mourners squatted silently around the pyre as it burned, 
sending an oily black column of smoke into the sky. Suddenly, 
a dull ‘pop’ came over the crackling of the flames. At the 
sound, a grateful prayer rose from the mourners. The defunct’s 
skull had burst. His soul had escaped from his body. On this 
morning of 15 August 1947, when India was released from 
imperial bondage, Benares, as it did every day, had begun to 
offer its supreme deliverance to its dead. 

The first uncertain sputtering of a candle had appeared in the 
windows of the house on Beliaghata Road just after 2 a.m., an 
hour ahead of Gandhi’s usual rising time. The glorious day 
when his people would savour at last their freedom should 
have been an apotheosis for Gandhi, the culmination of a life 
of struggle, the final triumph of a movement which had stirred 
the admiration of the world. It was anything but that. There 
was no joy in the heart of the man in Hydari House. The 
victory for which Gandhi had sacrificed so much had the taste 


Freedom at Midnight 

of ashes, and his triumph was indelibly tainted by the prospects 
of a coming tragedy. 

As he had been when crossing into the turbulent marshlands 
of Noakhali that New Year’s Day just seven months before, 
the gentle apostle of non-violence was assailed this morning 
by questioning and self-doubt. ‘I am groping,’ he had written 
to a friend the evening before. ‘Have I led the country 

As always in moments of doubt and pain, Gandhi had 
turned to the book that had so long been his infallible guide, 
the celestial song of the Bhagavad Gita. How often had its 
verses consoled him, permitting him to smile in those dark 
hours when no other ray of light appeared to soften the dark 

Squatting bare-chested on his pallet, Gandhi had begun his 
personal day of mourning, the first day of India’s indepen- 
dence, reading the Gita. With his disciples around him, the 
Mahatma’s high, lisping voice had welcomed the dawn with 
the first of the Gita s eighteen dialogues, the despairing plea 
of the warrior Arjuna to the Gods. They were eerily appropriate 
to this promising yet pathetic moment in Indian history. 

‘On the field of Dharma, on the holy field of Kuru, my men 
and the sons of Pandu are arrayed, burning with desire to 
fight. What must they do, O Sanjaya?’ 

It was a sound as old as man, the anguished rasp of stone on 
stone. In a courtyard of the village of Chatharpur, near Delhi, 
the figure sprawled on the ropes stretched taut between the 
wooden ffarhe of a charpoi opened his eyes. Before him, etched 
in the amber glow of a twist of cord burning in a saucer of 
camphor oil, was the image that had marked all the dawns of 
his adult existence: his wife, bent over the two slabs of a 
millstone. Her face obscured by the folds of the shawl draping 
her head, she dumbly churned to powder the grains which 
would sustain another day in the life of an Indian peasant. 

That peasant, a 52-year-old Brahmin named Ranjit Lai, mur- 
mured a brief prayer to Vishnu. Then he stepped past his wife, 


'Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom 9 

out of his mud hut, to join the silhouettes of his fellow villagers 
slipping through the half light to the nearby field, which was 
the communal toilet for the three thousand inhabitants of 

The foreign rule ending in this August dawn had barely 
disturbed those peasants trudging dumbly through the 
shadows. Never in his life had Ranjit Lai addressed so much 
as a single word to a representative of the alien race that 
ruled his country. He and his fellow villagers looked upon an 
Englishman only once a year when a District Collector visited 
Chatharpur to verify the exactness of its paltry contribution 
to the revenues of the Indian state. The only phrase Lai could 
articulate in the tongue of India’s old rulers was the one he 
and his fellows employed to describe the act they were about 
to perform: ‘call of nature’. 

If the words used to describe it were foreign, however, it 
was ordered for Lai, a Brahmin, by a code of 23 strict laws 
uniquely Hindu in their detail and complexity. Lai carried in 
his left hand a brass vessel filled with water. The dhoti he wore 
was neither new nor freshly washed. The field towards which 
he and his fellows marched had been selected because of its 
distance from a river bank, a well, a crossroad, a pond, the 
nearest sacred banyan tree and the village temple. 

Reaching the field, Lai hung the triple cord of his Brahmin’s 
sacred thread over his left ear, covered his head with his loin- 
cloth, and squatted as close to the ground as was physically 
possible. Anything less was a grave offence, as would have been 
performing his act from a wall or the branch of a tree. Thus 
ensconced, he was enjoined from looking at the sun, the moon, 
stars, fire, another Brahmin, the village temple or a banyan 
tree. When he’d finished, he washed his hands and feet with 
the water in his brass vessel before heading for the village tank 
for his ritual ablution. Once there, he selected a handful of 
dirt to aid his wash. Its nature, too, was rigorously prescribed. 
The dirt could not come from a white ants’ nest, salt earth, a 
potter’s field, a cow pasture, a temple enclosure, or ground 
touched by the shade of a banyan tree. Mixing his water with 


Freedom at Midnight 

the mud, he washed his soiled parts with his left hand/ 

When he’d finished, he washed his hands five times, begin- 
ning with the left; his feet five times beginning with the 
right; rinsed his mouth eight times taking care, at the risk of 
committing a terrible offence, to spit the water out each time 
to the left side of his body. That done, he was ready for 
the twenty-third and final observance of his morning bowel 
movement. He took three sips of water, thinking as he did so 
of Vishnu. 

That rite accomplished, Ranjit Lai headed back to his hut 
past the fields from whose reluctant soils he scratched the 
bare ingredients of survival for himself, his wife and his seven 
children. Beyond them, at the crest of an almost imperceptible 
rise, Lai could see in the first glimmer of dawn the sweeping 
branches of a trio of babul trees. Like umbrellas, their branches 
opened over a flat piece of earth. It was the village cremation 
ground where for five centuries the dead of Chatharpur had 
been laid upon their funeral pyres. If there was one inescapable 
certainty in the circle of certainties that circumscribed that 
Indian peasant’s life, it was that it would end on a bed of 
sticks there in that cremation ground. 

Beyond, a purplish stone tower pierced the blue-grey hori- 
zon like some gigantic phallic symbol. At its left were a pair 
of graceful domes, ruins of the thirteenth-century metropolis 
of the Sultan Alauddin, founder of one of the seven cities of 
ancient Delhi. Barely twenty miles north, in the broad avenues 
of New Delhi, Ranjit Lai and his fellow villagers had an historic 
rendezvous this morning. For most of them, it would be the 
first time they’d made that brief journey. Ranjit Lai had made 
it only once in 52 years, to buy a gold bangle ip the bazaar 
for the marriage of his eldest daughter. 

This morning, however, for the villagers of Chatharpur as 
for the inhabitants of all the villages around Delhi, distance 
no longer existed. Tributaries of an immense and triumphant 

* To the orthodox Hindu, the navel is the body’s frontier. For acts performed 
below it, the left hand is used; for those above, the right is generally employed. 


'Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom ’ 

stream, they flowed with the dawn towards the centre of their 
rejoicing capital to celebrate in its streets the end of a coloniz- 
ation most of them had not even known. 

New Delhi, 15 August 1947 

‘Oh lovely dawn of freedom that breaks in gold and purple 
over an ancient capital,’ proclaimed India s poet laureate in 
benediction over the crowds swarming into New Delhi. They 
came from all sides. There were caravans of tongas, their bells 
jingling gaily. There were bullocks, harnesses and hooves 
painted with orange, green and white stripes, tugging wooden- 
wheeled platforms crowded with people. There were trucks 
overflowing with people, their roofs and flanks galleries of 
primitive paintings of snakes, eagles, falcons, sacred cows and 
cool mountain landscapes. People came on donkey, horse and 
bicycle, walking and running, country people with turbans of 
every shape and colour imaginable, their women in bright, 
festive saris, every bauble they owned glittering on their arms, 
from their ears, fingers and noses. 

For a brief moment in that fraternal cohort, rank, religion 
and caste disappeared. Brahmins, Untouchables, Hindus, 
Sikhs, Moslems, Parsees, Anglo-Indians laughed, cheered, and 
occasionally wept with emotion. Ranjit Lai rented a tonga for 
four annas for himself, his wife and his seven children. All 
around him, Lai could hear other peasants excitedly explaining 
to their kith and kin why they were all going to Delhi. ‘The 
British are going,’ they cried. ‘Nehru is going to raise a new 
flag. We are free!’ 

The shriek of silver trumpets sundered the morning air. With 
a final burst of Victorian pomp the first official ceremony of 
this extraordinary day was beginning. It was the swearing-in 
of the first constitutional Governor-General of the new 
dominion of India. 

As solemn as he had been in Karachi, Queen Victoria s 
great-grandson advanced towards the throne where he would 


Freedom at Midnight 

receive a charge and an honour unique in the coining annals 
of decolonization. For Louis Mountbatten, ‘the most remark- 
able and inspiring day in his life’ was beginning, the day he 
would be handing over charge of the heartland of his great- 
grandmother’s empire. 

His wife walked by his side in a silver lame gown, a diadem 
set in her brown hair. Determined the day ‘would go off with 
the utmost pomp’, Mountbatten had supervised every detail 
of India’s independence ceremonies with his love of pageantry 
and his teutonic zest for detail. A colourful uniformed escort 
preceded the regal pair as they flowed towards those crimson 
thrones in which five months before they’d been installed as 
Viceroy and Vicereine. 

Ranged to their right and left on the marble dais under a 
velvet canopy were the new masters of India, Nehru in cotton 
jodhpurs and a linen waistcoat, Vallabhbhai Patel more than 
ever the scowling Roman emperor in his white dhoti, all the 
others in their little white Congress caps. 

Taking his place, an amusing thought struck Mountbatten. 
The men and women ranged beside him probably had only 
one experience in common: they had, almost all of them, 
served time in a British prison. Before that array of former 
guests of His Majesty’s government’s prison administration, 
Louis Mountbatten raised his right hand and solemnly swore to 
become the humble and faithful first servant of an independent 
India. When- he’d finished, those ministers whose names Nehru 
had forgotten to place in his envelope the evening before, 
swore their oaths at the hands of the man who’d given India 
her independence. 

Outside, the echoes of the 21-gun salute* marking the event 
began to roll across India’s rejoicing capital. Waiting for the 
Mountbattens at the foot of the red-carpeted steps leading out 
of Durbar Hall was the gold state carriage assembled almost 
half a century earlier by the craftsmen of London’s Messrs 

* The old Viceregal 31-gun salute had been reduced to 21 guns for the 
Constitutional Governor-General. 


‘ Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom ’ 

Parker and Company, for the royal visit to India of George V 
and Queen Mary. In front of its six matched bays, the entire 
Governor-GeneraPs Bodyguard was assembled in glistening 
black jack-boots, white riding-breeches, white tunics closed by 
scarlet sashes embroidered in gold. 

The great procession jangled down the drive of Viceroy’s 
House, all fluttering pennants and lances, point men and pos- 
tillions, colour guards and connecting files, buglers and com- 
manders, four squadrons of the world’s finest horsemen 
aglitter in scarlet and gold, a portrait from an old storybook, 
the last parade of the British Raj. 

Nodding with those stiff and graceful half-gestures with 
which royalty condescends to acknowledge the masses, the 
tautly erect Mountbattens drove down a line of saluting troops 
to the great wrought-iron gates of Lutyens’s palace. There, 
outside, India waited. 

It was an India such as no Englishman had seen in three 
centuries. This was no curious crowd come to be dazzled by 
the circuses of the Raj, to applaud the spectacles staged for 
their entertainment by their rulers. The dimensions of India 
had always been in her masses, and today, those masses were 
thronging New Delhi in numbers and a. density never seen 
before. Jubilant, excited, gleefully unruly, they swarmed 
around the procession, forcing the horses of the Bodyguard 
down to a slow walk. All Mountbatten’s protocol, all his careful 
arrangements calculated on the traditions of another India, 
collapsed, engulfed, overwhelmed by the new India born this 
day, a vibrant, seething mass drowning the scarlet and gold in 
a happy brown horde of human beings. 

Caught in the crowd along the Mountbattens’ route, the 
Sikh journalist who the night before had greeted independence 
by kissing a Moslem medical student, suddenly thought The 
chains are breaking all around me’. He remembered how once, 
as a child, an English schoolboy had forced him off a pavement. 
‘No one could do that to me now,’ he thought. In the crowd, 
he noted, there were no more rich or poor, Untouchables or 
masters, lawyers, bank clerks, coolies or pickpockets, just 

338 Freedom at Midnight 

happy people embracing and calling to each other ‘Azad Sahib 
- We are free, Sir!’ 

‘It was as though an entire people had suddenly rediscovered 
their home/ noted one witness to that happy pandemonium. 
Seeing his nation’s flag flying for the first time over the Delhi 
officers’ mess, Major Ashwini Dubey, an officer in the Indian 
Army, thought: ‘in a mess where we’ve been stooges, now 
there’s no one above us but our brother Indian officers.’ 

For many simple Indians, the magic word independence 
meant a new world was at hand. Ranjit Lai, the peasant from 
Chatharpur, assured his children that ‘there will be much to 
eat now because India is free’. People refused to pay bus fares, 
assuming they should now be free. A humble beggar walked 
into an enclosure reserved for foreign diplomats. A policeman 
asked him for his invitation. 

‘Invitation?’ he answered, ‘Why do I need an invitation? I 
have my independence. That’s enough.’ 

Across India, scenes of rejoicing similar to those in the capital 
marked this memorable morning. In Calcutta at 8.00 a.m., a 
horde from the city’s slums swept through the gates of the 
majestic governor’s palace. While the last British governor, Sir 
Frederick Burrows, and his wife breakfasted in a corner of the 
house, the crowd raced through the spacious salons. In 
Burrows’ bedroom, some of those miserable creatures who’d 
never slept on anything softer than a patch of dirt or the ropes 
of a charpoi, celebrated their independence by jumping up 
and down like excited children on the bed in which the gov- 
ernor’s lady had been sleeping an hour before. Elsewhere in 
the house, others expressed their joy at India’s independence 
by stabbing the oil paintings of India’s former rulers with the 
tips of their umbrellas. 

Trams and trolleys ran free of charge all day. A city that 
had feared it would echo this day to the sound of gunfire rang 
with happier sounds: the explosion of fire crackers. 

In Bombay, excited crowds swarmed into that citadel of 
imperial elegance, the Taj Mahal Hotel. All day long, in 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom’ 

Madras, the dark south-Indian crowds streamed along the 
waterfront to Fort Saint George to stare with pride and rapture 
at their nation’s flag flying at last over the first fortress of the 
British East India Company. At Serat, dozens of gaily bedecked 
boats staged an independence regatta in the bay where Captain 
Hawkins had begun Britain’s Indian adventure. 

India’s freedom brought freedom of a most tangible nature 
to one category of people. Jail doors opened before thousands 
of convicts granted pardon as an Independence Day gesture. 
Death sentences were commuted. Mystic India, the India of 
fakirs and fairy tales, joined the feast. At Tirukalikundram in 
the south, the mysterious pair of white eagles which swooped 
down from the sky each noon to snatch their food from the 
hands of a local sadhu, seemed to honour the occasion with 
an exultant beating of their wings. In the jungles of Madura, 
near Madras, other holy men indulged in the outlawed spec- 
tacle of hook-swinging. Impaling the flesh of their backs on 
iron claws suspended from a kind of gibbet, they dangled 
above gawking crowds, offering their agony for India s freedom 
- and a particularly bountiful harvest of alms. 

Everywhere, the day was characterized by the goodwill dis- 
played towards the British and the dignity with which they 
participated in ceremonies which for many of them marked a 
sad, nostalgic moment. In Shillong, the British commanding 
officer of the Assam Rifles spontaneously stood down, giving 
his Indian deputy the honour of commanding the Indepen- 
dence Day parade. At the huge Chuba tea plantation near 
the Burmese border, Peter Bullock, the plantation manager, 
organized a Field Day complete with egg and spoon and sack 
races for his 1500 workers, most of whom didn’t even know 
what it was they were celebrating with their unexpected 

There were exceptions. In Simla, Mrs Maude Penn Mon- 
tague refused to leave the home in which she had given so 
many grand balls and dinners. She considered herself in 
mourning. Born in India, of a father who’d also been born 
on the sub-continent, India had become her home. With the 

34 » ' 

Freedom at Midnight 

exception of five years schooling in England, her whole life 
had been spent there. To friends who suggested it was now- 
time to leave, she replied: ‘My dear, whatever would I do in 
England? I don’t even know how to boil the water for a cup 
of tea.’ And so, while the former summer capital of the Raj 
celebrated, she sat at home weeping, unable to bear the sight 
of another nation’s flag going up that pole where her beloved 
Union Jack had flown. 

For the other great dominion born on the sub-continent, 
15 August was a particularly auspicious day. It was the last 
Friday of the holy month of Ramadan. The festivities were 
almost as much a celebration of the state’s founder as they were 
of the state itself. Jinnah’s photo and name were everywhere: 
in windows, bazaars, stores, on enormous triumphal arches 
spanning city streets. The Pakistan Times even proclaimed that, 
through the voice of their caretakers, the camels, monkeys and 
tigers of the Lahore zoo joined in sending their wishes to 
the Quaid-i-Azzam and trumpeting ‘ Pakistan Zindabad'. There 
may have been no flags of the new state in Dacca, capital of 
its eastern wing, but everywhere there were pictures of the 
leader who’d never visited its soil. 

Jinnah himself celebrated the day by assuming full powers 
for his supposedly ceremonial office. In the year of life remain- 
ing to him, the London-trained lawyer who for years had not 
ceased to proclaim his faith in the constitutional process, 
would govern his new nation as a dictator. 

He would do it without the comforting presence of his 
closest living relative: 500 miles from Karachi, on the balcony 
of a flat in Colasia, one of Bombay’s most elegant suburbs, a 
young woman had decorated her balcony with two flags, one 
for India and one for Pakistan. They symbolized the terrible 
dilemma Independence Day had posed for her, as well as for 
so many others. Dina, the only child of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, 
had been unable to decide to which country she wished to 
belong, the land of her birth, or the Islamic nation created by 
her father. 

Conscious of the terrible drama lurking behind this euphoric 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom’ 

Independence Day, many an Indian was unable to share in 
the ecstasy of his celebrating countrymen. In Lucknow, Anis 
Kidwai would always remember the incongruous spectacle of 
a group of cheering, laughing people waving flags, next to 
others in tears because they’d just learned of the death of close 
relatives in the Punjab. 

Khushwant Singh, a Sikh lawyer from Lahore, was totally 
indifferent to the gay crowds around him in New Delhi. ‘I had 
nothing to rejoice about,’ he would bitterly recall. ‘For me and 
millions like me, this Independence Day was a tragedy. They’d 
mutilated the Punjab, and I had lost everything.’ 

The Punjab, 15 August 1947 

India’s joyful Independence Day was indeed a day of horror for 
the Punjab. The predominant colour of the dawn of freedom 
breaking over its ancient vistas was not purple and gold but 
crimson. In Amritsar, while the city’s new authorities dutifully • 
performed their independence rituals at the city’s Moghul fort- 
ress, an enraged horde of Sikhs was ravaging a Moslem neigh- 
bourhood less than a mile away. They slaughtered its male 
inhabitants without mercy or exception. The women were 
stripped, repeatedly raped, then paraded shaking and terrified 
through the city to the Golden Temple where most had their 
throats cut. 

In the Sikh state of Patiala, Sikh bands prowled the country- 
side, pouncing on Moslems trying to flee across the frontier 
to Pakistan. Prince Balindra Singh, the Maharaja’s brother, 
stumbled on one such band armed with huge kirpans. Pleading 
with them to return to their villages, he said: ‘This is harvest 
time. You should be home cutting your crops.’ 

‘There is another crop to cut first,’ replied their leader slicing 
the air with his kirpan. 

Amritsar’s red-brick railway station had become a kind of 
refugee camp, a clearing house for thousands of Hindus who’d 
fled from Pakistan’s half of the Punjab. They swarmed around 
its waiting room, its ticket office, its platforms, ready to 


Freedom at Midnight 

scrutinize each arriving train for missing relatives and friends. 

Late in the afternoon of 15 August, the station master, Chani 
Singh, pushed his way through their near-hysterical, weeping 
ranks with all the authority his little blue cap and the red flag 
he clutched in his hands conferred on him. Singh was prepared 
for the scene that Would follow the arrival of the incoming 
Number Ten Down Express. It was the same now for every 
train arriving in his station. Men and women would rush to 
the windows and doors of the dust-yellow third-class bogies , 
carriages, desperately searching for the child they’d lost in their 
hasty flight, shrieking out names, trampling and shoving each 
other in grief and hysteria. People in tears would rush from 
carriage to carriage calling for a missing relative, looking for 
someone from their village who might bring them news. There 
would be the abandoned children weeping softly on a stack 
of luggage, the babies born in flight being nursed by their 
mothers in the midst of that milling mob. 

* At the head of the platform Singh took his place and offici- 
ously waved the incoming locomotive to a halt. As its great 
steel frame rolled to a stop above his head, Singh glimpsed a 
strange sight. Four armed soldiers were standing guard over 
* the sullen engine driver. When the hiss of escaping steam and 
the shriek of the brakes had died, Singh suddenly realized 
something was terribly wrong. 

The babbling multitudes packing the platform were petri- 
fied, frozen into an eerie silence by the sight before them. 
Singh stared down the line of eight carriages. All the windows 
of the compartments were wide open but there was not a 
single human being standing at any of them. Not a single door 
had opened. Not a single person was getting off the train. They 
had brought him a trainful of phantoms. 

The station master strode to the first carriage, snatched 
open the door and stepped inside. In one horrible instant he 
understood why no one was getting off the Ten Down Express 
in Amritsar that night. It was not a trainful of phantoms they’d 
brought him, it was a trainful of corpses. The floor of the 
compartment before him was a tangled jumble of human 


f Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom 9 

bodies, throats cut, skulls smashed, bowels eviscerated. Arms, 
legs, trunks of bodies were strewn along the corridors of com- 
partments. From somewhere in that ghastly human junk-heap 
at his feet, Singh heard a sound of strangled gargling. Realizing 
that there might be a few survivors, Singh called out: ‘You are 
in Amritsar. We are Hindus and Sikhs here. The police are 
present. Do not be afraid.’ 

At his words a few of the dead began to stir. The stark 
horror of the scenes that followed would be for ever a night- 
mare engraved upon the station master’s mind. One woman 
picked her husband’s severed head from the coagulating pool 
of blood by her side. She clutched it in her arms shrieking her 
grief. He saw weeping children clinging to the bodies of their 
slaughtered mothers, men in shock as they pulled the body of 
a^mutilated child from a pile of corpses. AS the crowd along 
the platform realized what had happened, hysteria swept their 

Numb, the station master made his way down the line of 
bodies. In every compartment of every carriage the sight was 
the same. By the time he reached the last one he was ill. Reeling 
back on to the platform, his nostrils impregnated with the 
stench of death, Singh thought, ‘How could God permit such 
a thing?’ 

He turned to look back at the train. As he did, he saw in 
great white-washed letters on the flank of the last car the 
assassins’ calling card. ‘This train is our Independence gift to 
Nehru and Patel,’ it read. 

In Calcutta, thfc unfathomable alchemy of that strange old man 
with his prayers and his spinning-wheel was somehow casting 
its spell over the slums in which everyone had expected an 
explosion to dwarf in dimension and horror the worst of the 
happenings in the Punjab. The promise inherent in the pro- 
cession which had marched to Hydari House the evening 
before had been realized. All across Calcutta, on the avenues 
and thoroughfares which just a year before had been littered 
with the corpses of Direct Action Day, Moslems and Hindus 


Freedom at Midnight 

had paraded and celebrated together. It was, wrote Gandhi’s 
secretary, Pyarelal Nayar, ‘as if after the black clouds of a year 
of madness, the sunshine of sanity and goodwill had suddenly 
broken through.’ 

The almost incredible change in Calcutta’s climate had been 
signalled at dawn with the arrival at Hydari House of another 
procession, this one composed of young girls. Hindus and 
Moslems, they’d been walking since midnight to take darshan 
from Gandhi, a kind of mystic communion engendered by 
being in the presence of a great spirit. They had been the first 
in ah uninterrupted flow of pilgrims that had converged all 
day long on Hydari House. 

Every half an hour, Gandhi had had to interrupt his medi- 
tation and spinning to appear on the porch before the crowds. 
Because he considered this a day of mourning, he had not 
prepared a formal message of congratulations for the people 
he’d led to freedom. That message came spontaneously and it 
was addressed not to India’s masses but to their new rulers. 

‘Beware of power,’ he warned a group of politicians come 
to seek his blessing, ‘power corrupts. Do not let yourselves be 
entrapped by its pomp and pageantry. Remember you are in 
office to serve the poor in India’s villages.’ 

That afternoon, with a bleating of conch shells, 30,000 
people, three times the number that had gathered the day 
before, poured down Beliaghata Road for Gandhiji’s prayer 
meeting. Gandhi addressed them from a wooden platform 
hastily erected in the yard outside the house. He congratulated 
them on what they had accomplished in Calcutta. Their noble 
example, he hoped, might inspire their countrymen in the 

Shaheed Suhrawardy, his features taut from the strain of a 
24-hour fast, addressed the multitude when Gandhi had 
finished. The man who’d been the unchallenged leader of Cal- 
cutta’s Moslems asked the mixed assembly to set a seal upon 
their reconciliation by joining him in crying ‘ Jai - Hind - 
Victory to India’. At his shout, an answering roar burst like a 
clap of monsoon thunder from 30,000 throats. 


l Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom ’ 

After the meeting, the two men set out together on a tour 
of the city in Gandhi’s old Chevrolet. This time, however, it 
was not with stones and curses that the crowd of Calcutta 
greeted the Mahatma’s car. At every street corner they 
showered it with rosewater and a grateful cry: ‘Gandhiji, you 
^have saved us!’ 

Poona , 15 August 194 7 

The ceremony being held on a vacant lot in the inland city of 
Poona, 119 miles south-east of Bombay, was similar to thousands 
like it taking place all across the new dominion of India. It was 
a flag- raising. One thing, however, set the little ritual apart from 
most of the others. The flag slowly moving up a makeshift staff 
in the centre of a group of 500 men was not the flag of an inde- 
pendent India. It was an orange triangle, and emblazoned upon 
it was the symbol which, in a slightly modified form, had ter- 
rorized Europe for a decade, the swastika. 

That ancient emblem was on the orange pennant in Poona 
for the same reason as it had been on the banners of Hitler’s 
Third Reich. It was an Aryan symbol. It had been brought to 
India at some juncture lost in the mists of time by the first 
waves of Aryan conquerors to subdue the sub-continent. The 
men gathered about it in Poona all belonged to the RSSS, the 
para-fascist movement, some of whose members had been 
assigned the task of assassinating Jinnah along with Mount- 
batten in Karachi 48 hours earlier. Hindu zealots, they saw 
themselves as the heirs to those ancient Aryans. 

They shared one emotion with the bespectacled prophet 
on the opposite flank of the sub-continent. They, too, were 
desperately pained by the division of India. Their identification 
with Mahatma Gandhi and the things he stood for, however, 
ended there. 

The group to which they belonged cherished an historic 
dream, to reconstitute a great Hindu empire from the head- 
waters of the Indus River to eastern Burma, from Tibet to 
Cape Comorin. They despised Gandhi and all his works. To 


Freedom at Midnight 

them, India’s national hero was the arch-enemy of Hinduism. 
The doctrine of non-violence with which he had led India to 
independence was in their eyes a coward’s philosophy that had 
vitiated the force and character of the Hindu peoples. There 
was no place in their dreams for the brotherhood and tolerance 
of India’s Moslem minority preached by Gandhi. They con-^ 
sidered themselves, as Hindus, the sole heirs to India’s Aryan 
conquerors and therefore the rightful proprietors of the sub- 
continent. The Moslems, they held, were descendants of an 
usurping clan, that of the Moghuls. 

But, above all, there was one sin for which they could never 
pardon India’s elderly leader. That they should even have 
accused him of it was the final cruel irony in the cruellest year 
in Mohandas Gandhi’s life. They held Gandhi, the only Indian 
politician who had opposed it until the very end, solely respon- 
sible for India’s partition. 

The man standing in front of their gathering in Poona that 
August afternoon was a journalist. Nathuram Godse had, in 
that summer of 1947. just become 37, yet slight pads of baby 
fat still clung to his cheeks, giving him a deceptively young 
and innocent look. He had exceptional eyes, large, sad and 
compelling in their slightly crossed gaze. In repose, there was 
always about his regard a faint air of disapproval, a strain 
about the mouth and nostrils as though he had just smelled 
a neighbour’s body odour but was too polite or too inhibited 
to express his distaste. 

Now, however, those features were not in repose. Earlier, 
Nathuram Godse had made clear his sentiments on India’s 
Independence Day on the front page of the daily paper he 
edited, the Hindu Rashtra - Hindu Nation. The spot usually 
filled by his daily editorial had been left blank, its white col- 
umns surrounded by a black band of mourning. 

The ceremonies all around India celebrating independence 
were, he told his followers, ‘deliberate camouflage to conceal 
from the people the fact that hundreds of Hindu men were 
being massacred and hundreds of Hindu women being kid- 
napped and raped.’ 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom' 

‘The vivisection of India,’ he shouted, was ‘a calamity con- 
demning millions of Indians to horrible sufferings’. It was ‘the 
work of the Congress Party and, above all, its leader Gandhi’. 

When he had finished, Nathuram Godse led his 500 fol- 
lowers in the salute to their flag. Thumbs pressed against their 
hearts, their hands palms down, at right angles to their chests, 
they vowed ‘to the Motherland which gave me birth and 
in which I have grown that my body is ready to die for her 

As he always did, Nathuram Godse felt a tremor of pride 
flutter across his being as he recited those words. All his life, 
from his school examinations through half a dozen trades, 
Nathuram Godse had been a failure at everything he’d under- 
taken. Then he’d embraced the extremist doctrines of the 
RSSS. Steeping himself in its lore and literature, teaching 
himself to write, to speak, he had made himself one of the 
movement’s foremost polemicists. Now he saw for himself a 
new role. He would become a vengeful spirit, purifying India 
of the foes of a militant Hindu resurrection. In that role, for 
the first time, Nathuram Godse would not be a failure. 

New Delhi, 15 August 1947 

For years to come, the one great memory left by 15 August 
1947 in India would be the crowds, the multitudinous hordes 
inundating in a human sea the event that had been designed 
as the high point of the new nation’s independence celebra- 
tions. It was the official raising of the Indian flag at five o’clock 
in the afternoon in an open space near New Delhi’s India 
Gate, a sandstone arch dedicated to the 90,000 Indians who’d 
died for the British. Empire in World War One. 

Louis Mountbatten and his advisers, drawing on those 
manuals which had ordered all the grandiose manifestations 
of the Raj, had estimated 30,000 people would attend. The 
figure was wrong, not by a few thousand but by well over half 
a million. Never before had anyone ever seen anything 
remotely like it in India’s capital city. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Stretching out in every direction, the masses that had con- 
verged on the site engulfed the little official tribune erected 
next to the flag-pole. To one spectator, it looked like ‘a raft 
bobbing on a stormy sea’. Everything - every vestige of the 
barriers, the bandstands, the carefully prepared visitors’ gallery 
and guide-ropes - was swept away in a dense torrent of human 
beings. Helpless, the police looked on as barriers were 
trampled, chairs snapped like twigs under a man’s foot. Lost 
in those masses, Ranjit Lai, the peasant who’d left his village 
of Chatharpur at dawn, thought the only crowds in India like 
it must be for the melas , the holy bathing festivals in the 
Ganges. So tightly did the throng press around him that Lai 
and his wife couldn’t even eat the chapatis they’d brought with 
them from their village. They were unable to move their hands 
from their sides to their mouths. 

Elizabeth Collins and Muriel Watson, Lady Mountbatten’s 
secretaries, arrived just after five. They had come dressed for 
the occasion,’ in fresh white gloves, their best cocktail dresses 
and bright little feathered hats. Suddenly they found them- 
selves caught up in the surge of that happy, sweaty, half-naked 
crowd. They were literally swept off their feet and thrust for- 
ward by the crowd’s remorseless drive. Clutching each other 
for support, their hats askew, their dresses dishevelled, they 
struggled desperately to remain upright. For the first time in 
her life, Elizabeth, who’d accompanied Lady Mountbatten on 
all her wartime trips, was frightened. Tightening her grip on 
Muriel’s arm, she gasped: ‘We’re going tp be trampled to 

Muriel scanned the hordes hemming them in on all sides. 
‘Thank God,’ she murmured with a sigh of relief, ‘at least, 
they’re not wearing shoes.’ 

Pamela Mountbatten, the 17-year-old younger daughter of 
the Governor-General, arrived with two of her father’s staff. 
With enormous difficulty they worked their way towards the 
wooden tribune. A hundred yards away they came on an 
impassable barrier of people, all seated, squeezed so tightly 
together that there was barely a breath of air between them. 


*Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom 7 

Spotting her from his place on the tribune, Nehru shouted 
at her to cross over the people to the platform. 

‘How can I?’ she shouted back. Tve got high heels on/ 

‘Take them off/ replied Nehru. 

Pamela couldn't dream of doing something as undignified 
on such an historic occasion. ‘Oh/ she gasped, ‘I couldn't do 

‘Then leave them on,' said Nehru. ‘Just walk over the people. 
They won't mind.' 

‘Oh,' replied Pamela, ‘the heels will hurt them.' 

‘Don't be a silly girl,' snapped Nehru. ‘Take them off and 
come across.’ 

With a sigh, the daughter of India’s last Viceroy kicked off 
her shoes, picked them up and set off across the carpet of 
human beings separating her from the platform. Laughing 
gleefully, the Indians over whom she was treadirlg helped her 
along, steadying her shaking legs, guiding her elbow, pointing 
with delight to her shiny high heels. 

At the instant the bright turbans of the bodyguard escorting 
the Mountbattens' state carriage appeared on the horizon, the’ 
crowd thrust forward with a wave-like heave. Following her 
parents' slow progress from the tribune, Pamela witnessed an 
incredible' spectacle. In that human sea surrounding the tri- 
bune were thousands of women clutching nursing babies at 
their breasts. Terrified that their infants would be crushed by 
the mob's surge, they reacted with a desperate gesture. They 
hurled them up into the air like rubber balk, tossing them 
back up again each time they tumbled down. In an instant, 
the air was filled with hundreds of infants. ‘My God/ thought 
the young girl, her eyes wide with wonder, ‘it's raining babies!' 

From his carriage, Mountbatten instantly realized there 
wasn't the vaguest chance of carrying out the elaborately 
planned ritual he’d prepared to accompany the flag-raising. 
He himself couldn't even get out of the carriage. 

‘Let's just* hoist the flag/ h e shouted to Nehru. ‘The band's 
swamped. They can't play. The guards can't move.’ 

Over the crowd's happy din, the men on the platform heard 


Freedom at Midnight 

his call. The saffron, white and green banner of a free India 
climbed up the flagpole while, tautly erect in his carriage, 
Queen Victoria’s great-grandson marked its progress with a 
formal salute. 

A roar of untrammelled happiness burst from half a million 
throats as the folds of the flag rose above the heads of the 
crowd. In the joy of that sublime second, India forgot the battle 
of Plassey, the vengeance of 1857, the massacre of Amritsar. 
Forgotten for an instant were the humiliations of martial law, 
the lathi-s winging police charges, the executions of her 
independence martyrs. Three difficult centuries were set 
aside to allow her to savour unfettered the delight of that 

Even the heavens seemed ready to brighten its historic 
impact. As India’s new flag neared the peak of its flagstaff, a 
rainbow suddenly flashed across the sky. To a people to whom 
the occult was an obsession and the celestial bodies the preordi- 
nators of Man’s destiny, its appearance could only be inter- 
preted as a manifestation of the Divine. Most extraordinary 
of all, its green, yellow and indigo bands were eerily similar 
to the colours of the flag framed in its perfect arc. As it glittered 
there, a voice quivering with wonder rose from the faceless 
horde around the platform. 

‘When God himself gives us a sign such as this,’ it called 
out in Hindi, ‘who can stand against us?’ 

The most extraordinary experience of their lives now awaited 
Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, their ride back to Lutyens’s 
palace. Their gilded carriage became a sort of life-raft, tossed 
amidst the most hysterical, happy, exuberant throng of human 
beings either of them had ever seen. Nehru himself was passed 
up into the carriage to ride with them, quite literally thrust 
aboard by his countrymen. The whole thing, Mountbatten 
thought, was ‘a kind of an enormous picnic of almost a million 
people, all of them having more fun than they’d ever had in 
their lives’. He immediately understood that this spontaneous, 
uncontrollable, but utterly happy outburst was a far truer 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom' 

reflection of the meaning of this day than all the pomp and 
pageantry he’d planned for it. 

Standing up in the middle of a forest of waving hands thrust 
frantically towards his, Mountbatten scanned the crowd, trying 
to find an outer limit to that field of human heads. He could 
see none. As far as his eyes could reach there was the crowd, 
always the crowd. 

Three times, Mountbatten and his wife leaned out of the 
carriage and hauled aboard an exhausted woman about to 
tumble under its wheels. The trio took their places on the 
black leather seats designed to cushion the King and Queen 
of England. They sat there, dark eyes wide with wonder, the 
edges of their saris pulled across their giggling mouths, bounc- 
ing along with India’s last Viceroy and Vicereine laughing 
happily at their sides. 

Above all, for Louis and Edwina Mountbatten the memory 
of this glorious day would always be associated with a cry, a 
vibrant, interminably repeated cry. No Englishman in Indian 
history had been privilege to hear it shouted with the emotion 
and sincerity that went with it that afternoon in New Delhi. 
Like a series of thunderclaps it burst over and over again from 
the crowd, the popular sanction of Mountbatten’s achieve- 
ment. Standing there in his shaking carriage, he received some- 
thing neither his great-grandmother nor any of her progeny 
had received, the homage, the real homage, of the people of 
India. ‘Mountbatten Ki Jail' the crowd yelled again and again, 
‘Mountbatten Ki Jai - Long Live Mountbatten!’ 

Six thousand miles from the exulting crowds of New Delhi, 
in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, an official car entered 
the courtyard of the castle of Balmoral. Its sole occupant was 
immediately shown to the study in which George VI awaited. 
Bowing stiffly, the Earl of Listowel, last Secretary of State for 
India, solemnly informed the King that the Transfer of Power 
to Indian hands had been accomplished. The nature of the 
monarch’s reign was irrevocably altered; his no longer was 
the designation of George VI, Rex Imperator. He had now, 


Freedom at Midnight 

Listowel explained, to return to George Vi’s custody those 
ancient seals which had been the badge of the Secretary of 
State’s office, the symbol of the links binding the Indian Empire 
to the British crown. 

Unhappily, he continued, there were no seals. Someone 
years before had mislaid them. The only souvenir his last 
Secretary of State for India could offer to the sovereign was a 
ritualistic nod of his head and the symbolic extension of an 
empty palm. 

Dusk, and the dust raised by a million feet, settled over the 
capital of India. Thousands continued to throng its streets, 
singing, cheering, embracing. In Old Delhi, by the walls of the 
Red Fort, thousands of celebrating people swarmed through 
a gigantic outdoor carnival of snake charmers, jugglers, fortune 
tellers, dancing bears, wrestlers, sword swallowers, fakirs pierc- 
ing their cheeks with silver spikes, flautists. Other thousands 
trudged out of the city towards the endless plains from which 
they’d come. Ranjit Lai, the Brahmin peasant from Chathar- 
pur, was among them. To Lai s distress, the tonga driver who’d 
asked four annas to bring him to Delhi now wanted two rupees 
to take him home. Vowing that was too high a price to pay 
for freedom, he and his family set out to walk the twenty miles 
back to their village. 

Alone at last in the private chamber of their palace, Louis 
and Edwina Mountbatten fell into each other’s arms. Tears of 
sheer happiness poured down their faces. The wheel of their 
lives had come full circle. In the streets of the city in which a 
quarter of a century before they had fallen in love, they had 
shared a triumph, felt an exhilaration such as is given to few 
people to know. For the admiral, even though he had tasted 
the exultant pleasure of accepting the surrender of three quar- 
ters of a million Japanese, his life would never produce another 
experience to rival it. It had been, Louis Mountbatten thought, 
like the hysterical celebration at the end of a war - only this 
had been ‘a war both sides had won, a war without losers’. 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom ’ 

The following morning, a visitor from New Delhi rang the 
bell of Number 10 Downing Street. Its occupant, Clement 
Attlee, had every reason to feel satisfied. India’s independence 
had been accompanied by an outpouring of goodwill and 
friendship towards Britain such as no one had thought possible 
six months before. Comparing her actions to those of Holland 
in Indonesia and France in Indo-China, one distinguished 
Indian had declared, ‘We cannot but admire the courage and 
political capacity of the British people.’ 

Louis Mountbatten, however, had sent his former Secretary, 
George Abell, to caution Attlee against any excessive jubilation 
at such declarations. The manner in which independence had 
been achieved, Abell told Attlee in the garden of his residence, 
was a great triumph both for his government and the man he 
had chosen as his last Viceroy. But, he warned, don’t celebrate 
the triumph too quickly or too publicly, because the inevitable 
consequence of partition was going to be ‘the most appalling 
bloodshed and confusion’. 

Attlee puffed at his pipe and sadly shook his head. There 
would be no boastful trumpetings, no self-satisfied procla- 
mations coming from Downing Street, he agreed. He was 
‘under no illusion’. What they had accomplished was impor- 
tant but he well knew there was now a price to be paid and 
that price was going to be ‘terrible bloodshed in the India we 
have left’. 

The time had come to open Pandora’s box. For just a second 
Louis Mountbatten paused, his gaze upon the two manilla 
envelopes in his hand. Each contained a set of the new maps 
of the sub-continent and less than a dozen typewritten pages 
of paper. They were the last official documents Britain would 
bequeath India, the final links in a chain that had begun with 
Elizabeth I’s Royal Charter to the East India Company in 1599 
and continued down to that act over which, barely a month 
before, a clerk had muttered ‘Le Roi le Veult\ None of the 
documents which had preceded them, however, had produced 
a reaction as immediate or as brutal as these were going to. 


Freedom at Midnight 

They were, inevitably, the catalysts of the tragedy predicted to 
Britain’s Prime Minister in his Downing Street garden. 

Mountbatten passed them to Nehru and Pakistan’s Prime 
Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, suggesting they study them in two 
different rooms, then return for a joint meeting in two hours’ 
time. The fury contorting their faces on their return reassured 
Mountbatten on at least one point: Cyril Radcliffe had per- 
formed his thankless task with true impartiality. Both men 
seemed equally enraged. As soon as they sat down, they 
exploded in a rush of angry protests. India’s independence 
celebrations were over. 

Cyril Radcliffe had followed his instructions rigorously in 
applying his scalpel to the map of India. With a few minor 
exceptions, the lines he’d traced in the Punjab and Bengal 
were those imposed by the religious persuasion of the majority 
populations. The result was exactly what everyone had pre- 
dicted: technically feasible, in practical application a disaster. 

The line in Bengal condemned both parties to economic 
ruin unless they could collaborate. Eighty-five per cent of the 
world’s jute was grown in the area that had gone to Pakistan, 
but there was not a single mill for processing it in the new 
state’s territory. India wound up with over a hundred jute 
mills, the port of Calcutta from which it was shipped to the 
world - and no jute. 

The Punjab boundary, over which Radcliffe had agonized 
so much, began in a trackless wood on the edge of Kashmir 
where the western branch of a river called the Ujh entered the 
Punjab. Following where possible the Ravi or Sutlej Rivers, it 
ran 200 miles south to the northernmost edge of the Great 
Indian Desert. Lahore went to Pakistan, Amritsar with its 
Golden Temple to India. 

As it was condemned from the start to do, Radcliffe’s line 
sliced into two parts the lands and peoples of India’s most 
closely knit, militant community, the Sikhs. Vengeful and 
embittered, they were now to become the principal actors in 
the tragedy of the Punjab. 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom’ 

The major controversy produced by Radcliffe’s award would 
come over one of his rare exceptions to his majority population 
principle. It involved a squalid little city called Gurdaspur near 
the northern extremity of the Punjab. There, Radcliffe had 
elected to follow the natural boundary line of the Ravi River, 
leaving the city and the Moslem villages around it inside India, 
instead of creating a Pakistani enclave protruding into Indian 

It was a decision for which Pakistan’s millions would never 
pardon him. For, had Radcliffe awarded Gurdaspur to Paki- 
stan, it was not that dirty, inconsequential city Jinnah’s state 
would have won. With it, inevitably, would have come the 
enchanted vale for which the dying Moghul Emperor Jehangir 
had cried in despair ‘Kashmir - only Kashmir . 

Without Gurdaspur, India would have no practicable land 
access to Kashmir and its vacillating Hindu Maharaja, Hari 
Singh, would have had no choice except to link Kashmir’s 
destiny to Pakistan. Unintentionally, almost inadvertently, 
Radcliffe’s scalpel had offered India the hope of claiming 

The man who had been asked to serve as the artisan of India’s 
vivisection because he had known so little about it, contem- 
plated for the last time in his life the mournful landscapes of 
the country he’d divided. Cyril Radcliffe, under close security 
guard, was going home. The last task accomplished by the 
ICS officer delegated to assist him had been to comb his plane 
for a possible bomb. Lost in his thoughts, the British jurist 
watched from his aircraft’s window as the Punjab’s endless 
fields of wheat and sugar-cane slipped past, their furrows indel- 
ibly altered now by the tracings of his pencil on a map. 

Radcliffe knew well the grief and consternation the lines 
he’d produced were going to cause. There had been, alas, no 
lines he could have drawn that would not have brought forth 
their harvest of anguish and suffering. The elements inexorably 
propelling the Punjab to tragedy had been inherent in the 
situation long before Cyril Radcliffe had been summoned to 


Freedom at Midnight 

India. As certain as the eternal cycle of the Punjab’s seasons, 
the consequences of his award would, he knew, be terrible 
bloodshed, violence and destruction. And, just as certain, he 
knew it was he who would be blamed for it all. 

Packed away in his luggage were Radcliffe’s physical sou- 
venirs of his stay in India, a pair of oriental carpets he’d bought 
in Delhi’s bazaar. His real souvenirs would always be. mental. 
On his appointment, both Nehru and Jinnah had agreed to 
be bound by his decision and use all their authority to imple- 
ment it. Now, in unseeming haste, both men rushed to con- 
demn those parts which did not suit them, sabotaging it, 
almost, with their ‘ill-tempered reactions’. 

In a few days’ time, in those law chambers from which he’d 
set out for India, a thoroughly disenchanted Radcliffe reacted 
to their outburst with the one gesture available to him. He 
disdainfully returned the £2000 he was to have received as his 
fee for preparing the most complex boundary award of modern 

On the plains below, invisible to Radcliffe, the greatest 
migration in human history was already beginning. Precursors 
of the storm to come, a first trickle of helpless people staggered 
along the Punjab’s canal banks, down her dirt paths, and 
unmarked tracks, over her great Trunk Highway, across her 
unharvested fields. In a few hours, the publication of Radcliffe’s 
report would add still another dimension to the horrors 
enfolding that province which had been the arena of so many 
of mankind’s dramas. Villages whose Moslem inhabitants had 
exulted at the birth of Pakistan would find themselves in India; 
in others, Sikhs barely finished celebrating what they had mis- 
takenly thought was their hamlet’s attachment to India, before 
they had to flee for their lives towards Radcliffe’s border across 
the fields they’d cultivated for years. 

Soon the anomalies which Radcliffe had warned haste would 
produce became manifest. In places, the headworks of a canal 
system ended up in one country, the embankments which 
protected them in another. Sometimes the line ran down the 


‘Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom ’ 

heart of a village, leaving a dozen huts in India, a dozen more 
in Pakistan. Occasionally it even bisected a home, leaving a 
front door opening on to India and a rear window looking 
into Pakistan. All the Punjab’s jails wound up in Pakistan. So, 
too, did its solitary lunatic asylum. 

There, in a sudden burst of lucidity, its terrified Hindu and 
Sikh- inmates begged their custodians to send them to India. 
The Moslems, they reasoned, would slaughter them if they 
remained in Pakistan. Their plea was rejected. Far less prescient 
than those lunatics for whom they were responsible, the 
asylum’s doctors foresaw no such danger. Condescendingly 
they assured their patients Their fears were imaginary’. Th/ty 
were anything but that. 


‘ Our People Have Gone Mad’ 

The Punjab , August- September 194/ 

It would be unique, a cataclysm without precedent, unforeseen 
in magnitude, unordered in pattern, unreasoned in savagery. 
For six terrible weeks, like the ravages of a medieval plague, a 
mania for murder would sweep across the face of northern 
India. There would be no sanctuary from its scourge, no corner 
free from the contagion of its virus. Half as many Indians 
would lose their lives in that swift splurge* of slaughter as 
Americans in four years of combat in World War II. 

Everywhere the many and the strong assaulted the weak and 
the few. In the stately homes of New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road, 
the silver souks of Old Delhi’s Chandi Chowk, the mahallas of 
Amritsar, the elegant suburbs of Lahore, the bazaar of Rawal- 
pindi, the walled city of Peshawar; in shops, stalls, mud huts, 
village alleyways; in brick-kilns, factories and fields; in railway 
stations and tea houses; communities which had lived side by 
side for generations fell upon each other in an orgy of hate. 
It was not a war, not a civil war, not a guerrilla campaign. It 
was a convulsion, the sudden, shattering collapse of a society. 
One act provoked another, one horror fed another,' each 
slaughter begot its successor, each rumour its imitator, each 
atrocity its counterpart, until, like slow-motion images of a 
building disintegrating under the impact of an explosion, the 
walls of Punjab society crumbled upon each other. 

The disaster had its explanations. India and Pakistan were 
at the moment of their birth like a pair of Siamese twins linked 
by a malignant tumour, the Punjab. Cyril Radcliffe’s scalpel 
had severed the tumour, but it had not been able to carve out 
the cancerous cells infecting each half. His line had left five 


‘ Our People Have Gone Mad’ 

million Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan’s half of the Punjab, 
over five million Moslems in India’s half. Prodded by the 
demagoguery of Jinnah and the leaders of the Moslem League, 
the Punjab’s exploited Moslems had convinced themselves 
that, somehow, in Pakistan, the Land of the Pure, Hindu 
money-lenders, shopkeepers, zamindars and aggressive Sikh 
landlords would disappear. Yet there they were in the after- 
math of independence, still ready to collect their rents, still 
occupying their shops and farms. Inevitably, a simple thought 
swept the Moslem masses: if Pakistan is ours, so too are the 
shops, farms, houses and factories of the Hindus and Sikhs. 
Across the border the militant Sikhs prepared to drive the 
Moslems from their midst so they could gather on to the 
abandoned lands their brothers whom Radcliffe’s scalpel had 
left in Pakistan. 

And so, in a bewildering frenzy, Hindus, Sikhs and Moslems 
turned on each other. India was ever a land of extravagant 
dimensions, and the horror of the Punjab’s killings, the abun- 
dance of human anguish and suffering they would produce, 
did not fail that ancient tradition. Europe’s peoples had slaugh- 
tered each other with bombs, shells and the calculated horrors 
of the gas chambers; the people of the Punjab set out to destroy 
themselves with bamboo staves, hockey-sticks, ice-picks, 
knives, clubs, swords, hammers, bricks and clawing fingers. 
Theirs was a spontaneous, irrational slaughter. Appalled at the 
emotions they had inadvertently unleashed, their desperate 
leaders tried to call them back to reason. It was a hopeless cry. 
There was no reason in that brief and cruel season when India 
went mad. 

Capt. R. E. Atkins of the 2/8 Gurkhas gasped in horror at the 
sight at his feet. A figure of speech he’d often heard but had 
never believed had taken on reality under his eyes. The gutters 
of Lahore were running red with blood. The beautiful Paris 
of the Orient was a vista of desolation and destruction. Whole 
streets of Hindu homes were ablaze, while Moslem police and 
troops stood by watching. At night, the sounds of looters 

360 Freedom at Midnight 

ransacking those homes seemed to Atkins like the crunch of 
termites boring into logs. At his headquarters at Braganza’s 
Hotel, Atkins had been besieged by a horde of pathetic, half- 
hysterical Hindu businessmen ready to offer him anything, 
twenty-five, thirty, fifty thousand rupees, their daughters, their 
wives’ jewellery, if only he would let them flee in his jeep the 
hell Lahore had become. 

In nearby Amritsar, broad sections of the city, its Moslem 
sections, were nothing but heaps of brick and debris, twisting 
curls of smoke drifting above them into the sky, vultures keep- 
ing their vigil on their shattered walls, the pungent aroma of 
decomposing corpses permeating the ruins. Everywhere the 
face of the Punjab was disfigured by similar scenes. In Lyallpur 
the Moslem workers in a textile factory turned on the Sikhs 
who shared the misery of their looms and slaughtered every 
one of them. There, the image that had horrified Capt. Atkins 
was magnified to an almost unbelievable dimension: this time 
it was an entire irrigation canal that was incarnadined by 
hundreds of Sikh and Hindu corpses. 

In Simla, Fay Campbell- Johnson, wife of Lord Mount- 
batten’s press attache, gaped in horror at the spectacle she 
beheld from the veranda of Cecil’s Hotel where the Raj’s 
summering rulers had sipped their tea. Sikhs on bicycles, 
waving their kirpans, were swooping down the Mall chasing 
fleeing Moslems like hunters a fox. They would ride up 
behind a gasping victim and behead him with one terrible 
swish of their swords. Another Englishwoman saw the head 
of one of their victims, a fez still fixed firmly to it, rolling 
along the street while the Sikh assassin furiously pursued his 
next victim waving his bloody sword, shrieking: ‘I’ll kill more! 
I’ll kill more!’ 

A man’s executioner could be a friend or a stranger. Every 
day for fifteen years, Niranjan Singh, a Sikh tea merchant in 
the Montgomery bazaar, had served a pot of Assam tea to the 
Moslem leatherworker who came rushing to his shop one 
August morning. He was setting the man’s ration on his little 
brass balance when he looked up to see his customer, his face 

‘ Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 361 

contorted in hate, pointing at him and screaming ‘Kill him, 
kill him!’ 

A dozen Moslem hoodlums raced out of the alley. One 
severed Singh’s leg at the knee with a sword. In an instant 
they had killed his 90-year-old father and his only son. The 
last sight he saw as he lost consciousness was his 18-year-old 
daughter, screaming in fright, being carried off on the shoul- 
ders of the man to whom he’d been serving tea for fifteen 

There were districts in which not a single village went 
unharmed, not a bazaar was left standing. Everywhere the 
minority community was gripped by fear and terror. In 
Ukarna, a Moslem-dominated mill-town on the Lahore/ 
Karachi railway, Madanlal Pahwa, a stocky 20-year-old Indian 
Navy veteran, cowered inside the home of his aunt. Through 
the windows he could see the town’s jubilant Moslems dancing, 
singing, waving flags, chanting their newest slogan: ‘ Hamkelya 
Pakistan , Larkelinge Hindustan - We got Pakistan by laughing, 
we’ll get India by fighting.’ Madanlal hated Moslems. In his 
khaki uniform with the black stripe of the RSSS he had helped 
terrorize them. Now it was his turn to be terrorized. ‘We 
are all frightened,’ he thought, ‘we are like sheep waiting for 

Where they were dominant, the Sikhs were the best organ- 
ized, most vicious killers of all. Ahmed Zarullah was a Moslem 
tenant farmer in a little village near Ferozpore, assaulted one 
night by a Sikh jattha. ‘We knew we were going to be killed 
like rats,’ he recalled. ‘We hid behind our charpois, behind our 
piles of cow dung. The Sikhs broke down the door with axes. 
I was hit by a bullet in my left arm. As I tried to stand, I saw 
my wife get four bullets. Blood was coming from her thigh 
and back. My 3-year-old son was hit in the abdomen. He did 
not cry. He fell down. He was dead. 

‘I took hold of my wife and my second son. We left the 
dead child and crawled out to the street. I saw Sikhs shooting 
down the Moslems coming from the other huts. Some were 
carrying away girls on their shoulders. There were shrieks and 


Freedom at Midnight 

wailings and shoutings. The Sikhs jumped on me and dragged 
my dead wife from my arms. They killed the second boy and 
left me to die in the dust. I had no strength to weep or tears 
to drop. My eyes were as dry as the rivers of the Sind before 
the monsoon. I fell down unconscious.’ 

In Sheikhpura, a trading town north of Lahore, the entire 
Hindu and Sikh community was herded into an enormous 
‘go-down’, a huge warehouse used by the town bank to store 
the sacks of grain held as collateral for its loans. Once inside, 
the helpless Hindus were machine-gunned by Moslem police 
and army deserters. There were no survivors. 

One constant refrain sprang from the lips of the British 
officers who’d stayed on to serve in the Indian or Pakistan 
armies: ‘It was far worse than anything we saw in World War 

Robert Trumbull, a veteran correspondent of the New York 
Times , noted: ‘I have never been as shaken by anything, even 
by the piled-up bodies on the beach-head of Tarawa. In India 
today blood flows oftener than rain falls. I have seen dead by 
the hundreds and, worst of all, thousands of Indians without 
eyes, feet or hands. Death by shooting is merciful and 
uncommon. Men, women and children are commonly beaten 
to death with clubs and stones and left to die, their death 
agony intensified by heat and flies.’ 

The warring communities seemed to rival each other in 
savagery. One British officer of the Punjab Boundary Force 
discovered four Moslem babies ‘roasted like piglets on spits in 
a village raided by Sikhs’. Another found a group of Hindu 
women, their breasts methodically mutilated by Moslem 
zealots, being headed for slaughter. 

In Moslem areas, Hindus were sometimes offered the choice 
of converting to Islam or fleeing Pakistan. Bagh Das, a Hindu 
farmer in a hamlet west of Lyallpur, was marched with three 
hundred fellow Hindus to a mosque set by a small pond in a 
neighbouring village. Their feet were washed in the pond, 
then they were herded into the mosque and ordered to sit 
cross-legged on the floor. The maulvi read a few verses of the 


'Our People Have Gone Mad’ 363 

Koran. ‘Now,’ he told them, ‘you have the choice of becoming 
Moslems and living happily or being killed.’ 

‘We preferred the former,’ acknowledged Das. Each convert 
was given a new Moslem name and made to recite a verse 
from the Koran. Then they were herded into the mosque’s 
courtyard where a cow was roasting. One by one the Hindus 
were made to eat a piece of its flesh. Das, a vegetarian until 
that instant, ‘had a vomiting sensation’, but he controlled it 
because, he thought, ‘I will be killed if I do not obey their 

His neighbour, a Brahmin, asked permission to take his wife 
and three children back to his hut to get his special wedding 
plates and forks in view of the importance of the moment. 
Flattered, his Moslem captors agreed. ‘The Brahmin had a 
knife hidden in his house,’ Das remembered. ‘When he got 
home, he took it from its hiding-place. He cut his wife’s throat, 
then the throats of his three children. Then he stabbed his 
own heart. None of them returned to eat the meat.’ 

A motive that had nothing to do with religious fervour was 
more often behind the Moslem attacks on Hindus and Sikhs 
in Pakistan. It was greed, a simple, often carefully orchestrated 
effort to grab the lands, shops and wealth of their neighbours. 

Sardar Pren Singh, a Sikh, exercised the occupation the 
Moslems detested more than any other in a village near Sialkot. 
He was a money-lender. ‘I belonged to a very rich family, 
Pren Singh noted, ‘I had a big house, double-storied with 
strong iron gates in front. Everyone in the village knew I was 
the richest. Many Moslems mortgaged their jewels with me. I 
kept them in a big iron safe. At some time in his life almost 
every Moslem in the village had pledged his ornaments with 

One morning just after independence, Pren Singh saw a 
milling mob of Moslems streaming towards his house, bran- 
dishing clubs, crowbars, knives. He recognized almost every 
male in the crowd. They had all at one time or another been 
his creditors. ‘The safe, the safe,’ they screamed. 

‘They expected to reap a rich harvest,’ Pren Singh knew. 


Freedom at Midnight 

His safe, however, contained something more than Moslem 
jewels. Locked inside was a double-barrelled shotgun and 
twenty-five cartridges. Singh opened the safe, grabbed the gun 
and rushed to the second floor. For an hour he ran from 
window to window defending his home from the mob trying 
to beat in his gate. As he did so, an appalling scene was taking 
place on the floor below. Certain the Moslem mob was about 
to break into the house, his wife summoned Pren Singh’s six 
daughters to his office. She took a huge drum of cooking 
kerosene and drenched herself in its contents. After beseeching 
the mercy of the Sikh s guru , Nanak, and urging her daughters 
to follow her example, she set herself ablaze. 

On the floor above, still fighting desperately, her husband 
was mystified by the sickening odour drifting up the staircase. 
Finally, when he had only five cartridges left, the mob withdrew 
and the exhausted Sikh staggered downstairs. There the horri- 
fied money-lender discovered the reason for the acrid stench 
that had haunted him. Stretched in front of his open safe were 
the charred corpses of his wife and three of his daughters who 
had preferred self-immolation to the risk of rape at Moslem 

Not all the Sikhs and Hindus driven from their homes were 
wealthy. Guldip Singh was a 14-year-old boy, the son of a Sikh 
sharecropper, one of fifty Hindus and Sikhs in a village of six 
hundred Moslems north of Lahore. He shared the misery of 
his two-room hut with his parents, two buffaloes and a cow. 
One day their Moslem neighbours surrounded their quarter 
shouting, ‘Leave Pakistan or we will kill you.’ 

They fled to the home of the most important Sikh in the 
village. The Moslems came with swords, knives, long iron 
pikes with kerosene cloths tied on them to burn us. We threw 
bricks and stones at them, but they were able to set fire to our 
house. They caught hold of one Sikh and set fire to his beard. 
Even though his beard was burning, he still killed one Moslem 
by throwing a big brick at his head. Then he fell down dead 
muttering the name of the Sikh guru. 

‘They dragged the men outside and killed them in the streets. 


‘ Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

I ran to the roof. The women were there watching. They knew 
they would be captured and raped. Some of them had babies 
in their arms. They made a big fire on the roof. They fed their 
babies their breast milk, crying of the fate overtaking them. 
Then they threw the babies in the fire and jumped in after 

‘I could not bear the sight/ the Sikh youth remembered. 
He leapt off the roof and in the confusion and growing dark- 
ness escaped to a tree in whose branches he hid for the next 
six hours. 

‘A bad smell was coming from the house because of the 
burning bodies/ he recalled. ‘My mother and father did not 
come out. I knew they had been killed or had jumped into 
the fire. I saw two girls being carried away. They did not cry. 
They were unconscious. 

‘When there was peace late at night, I came down from the 
tree. I went into the house. They were all dead. Everybody in 
the village except the two girls and myself had been killed/ 
The 14-year-old Sikh spent the night in that charnel house, 
too stunned even to weep. At dawn, he tried to recognize the 
charred forms of his parents among the blackened bodies of 
the friends and neighbours he’d known all his life. He couldn’t. 
He found a blood-coated knife lying on the floor and chopped 
his uncut hair from his head so he could pose as a Moslem. 
Then he fled. 

Horror had no race, and the terrible anguish of those August 
days in the Punjab was meted out with almost biblical balance, 
an eye for an eye, massacre for massacre; rape for rape, blind 
cruelty for blind cruelty. The only difference between Guldip 
Singh and Mohammed Yacub was their religion. Mohammed 
too was a 14-year- old boy. He lived in India near Amritsar. 
The Moslem youth was playing marbles in front of the hut in 
which he lived with his parents and six brothers and sisters 
when the Sikhs attacked. He managed to hide in the sugar 
cane at the edge of his village. 

‘The Sikhs cut the breasts of some women. The others began 
to run around with fear/ he remembered. ‘Some of our 


Freedom at Midnight 

villagers killed their own wives and daughters to prevent the 
Sikhs from getting them. The Sikhs speared two of my small 
brothers through their bodies. My father could not bear the 
sight. He ran amok. He was running here and there like a 
madman, swinging a sword. The Sikhs could not catch him 
in the open fields. They set the village dogs to run after him. 
The dogs began to bite his legs and so my father had to slow 
down his running. Then the Sikhs caught him. Some held 
him tight. They pulled him down, cut him into pieces with 
their swords, my father. His head, hands and legs were 
separated from his body. Then they allowed the dogs to eat 
the body.’ 

Fifty of the five hundred Moslems in Mohammed’s village 
survived the massacre, saved by the intervention of a patrol 
of the Punjab Boundary Force. Mohammed, sole survivor of 
his family, was 'taken into a truck manned by Gurkha army 
men to travel to an unknown land which the leaders said 
belonged to Moslems’. 

The memory of that terrible upheaval would leave an indel- 
ible scar upon millions of people. Rare were the Punjabi 
families which did not lose a relative in the senseless slaughter. 
For years to come, the Punjab would be an assemblage of 
memories, each recollection more poignant, more harrowing 
than the next; the same terrible accounts of a people suddenly 
uprooted from the lands to which they’d been attached for 
years and thrown into panic-stricken flight. A special passion 
attached Sant Singh, a Sikh, to the land from which he was 
driven. He had, in a sense, bought that land with his blood, 
the blood he’d shed for Britain on the beach of Gallipoli in 
World War I. It had taken him sixteen years to clear and plant 
the plot he’d been awarded, like thousands of other Sikh army 
veterans, in an area reclaimed by a British canal irrigation 
scheme between the Ravi and Sutlej rivers south-west of 
Lahore. He had brought his bride to the tent in which he’d 
lived for over a decade, raised his children on that land, built 
there the five-room mud brick house that was both his pride 
and the measure of his life’s achievements. Two days before 


‘ Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

independence, one of Sant Singh’s Moslem fieldworkers 
brought him a pamphlet being secretly passed among the Mos- 
lems of the area. 

‘The Sikhs and Hindus do not belong to this land any more. 
They should be driven out,’ it said. The attack came three days 
later. Sant Singh and the 200 fellow Sikhs of his village decided 
to flee for their lives. He was assigned, with five other men 
under an 8o-year-old ex-army sergeant, to go on a truck as 
an escort for the village women. Before leaving, he went to 
the guru dwara , the temple he’d helped to build. ‘I came here 
with nothing,’ he prayed. ‘I leave with nothing. I ask only for 
your protection,’ he begged the guru Nanak. 

Just outside a village called Birwalla the gurus protection 
ended. Sant Singh’s truck ran out of petrol. He remembers: 
‘It was dark. We had been driving beside the railway track 
instead of on the road, to avoid being seen by Moslems. 
We had been told they had made a huge road block in 
Birwalla and were killing all the Hindus and Sikhs they could 
find. We could hear them shouting and shrieking in the 
darkness because the town w^s only a few hundred yards 

‘An elderly Moslem saw us and ran off into the night. We 
knew he had gone to warn them. Then we heard the voices 
coming for us. We were terrified. Our leader took the decision 
that we would shoot all our women. We did not want to 
permit them to be raped and defiled. We arranged them in 
three lines side by side sitting on the ground. We bandaged 
their eyes. One 2-month-old baby was feeding at the breast of 
its mother. We told them to recite the Sikh prayer “God is 
truth” over and over again. 

‘My wife was in the middle. My two daughters were there, 
my daughter-in-law and my two granddaughters. I tried tot 
to look. I had a double-barrelled shotgun. The others had a .303 
rifle, two revolvers and one Sten gun. I quoted the scriptures to 
them from the fifth book of the gurus Holy Book which says, 
“Everything is the will of God, and if your time has come you 
have to die”. I took out a white handkerchief and told the 

368 Freedom at Midnight 

others I would wave it three times counting to three. Then we 
would shoot. 

T waved it once and said “Ek - one!” I waved a second 
time and said “do - two!” All the time I was praying “God, 
don’t abandon me”. I raised it a third time. As I did I saw 
headlights in the distance. I took this as a sign in answer to 
my prayers. I said we must ask them for help. 

4 “What if the people in the car are Moslem?” said the old 

4 “We must ask anyway,” I said. 

Tt was a truck of the army. They were Moslem soldiers, but 
the officer was a good man, a major. He said he would save 
us. We kissed his feet. Then we set off again.’ 

Calcutta , ly August 1947 

They were almost 100,000 strong. Since five o’clock they had 
been waiting for him, inundating the square of Narikeldonga, 
lining the rooftops around it, hanging from windows, clustered 
on balconies. Human heads, like a dense array of ripe fruits, 
seemed to constitute the foliage of its few trees. Eighteen hun- 
dred miles from the plains of the Punjab, where Hindu and 
Moslem killed each other with such sadistic fury, that indis- 
criminately mixed mass of Hindus and Moslems awaited the 
appearance of the little man who had checked the violence of 
the most violent city in Asia. 

When at last Gandhi’s frail silhouette appeared above the 
crowd of heads ringing his little prayer platform, a sort of 
mystic current seemed to galvanize the multitude. Contemplat- 
ing that heaving crowd, vibrant with joy and enthusiasm, a 
sudden doubt gnawed the Mahatma. It seemed too good to 
be true. 

‘Everybody is showering congratulations on me for the 
miracle Calcutta is witnessing,’ he said. ‘Let us all thank God 
for His abundant mercy, but let us not forget that there are 
isolated spots in Calcutta where all is not well.’ 

Above all, he asked his followers, Hindus and Moslems alike, 

‘ Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 369 

to join him in the prayer that the ‘Miracle of Calcutta’ would 
not ‘prove to be a momentary ebullition’. 

What one unarmed non-violent man was accomplishing in 
the world’s meanest city, 55,000 heavily armed professional 
soldiers were unable to accomplish in the Punjab. The Punjab 
Boundary Force, put together with such care by the Viceroy 
and the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, was over- 
whelmed by events in the province it had been designed to 
safeguard. That it was, was understandable. Twelve of the 
Punjab’s districts were aflame; some of those districts covered 
areas larger than all Palestine where 100,000 British soldiers 
were unable to keep order that autumn. The tanks and trucks 
were poorly adapted to the dirt tracks and paths that criss- 
crossed the Punjab. The ideal would have been cavalry, of 
course, but there were no cavalry units left in the army which 
had once gloried in the horse. 

The Force’s task was infinitely complicated by the adminis- 
trative collapse in the province. Cables, mail and telephones 
suddenly stopped working. For lack of better accommodation, 
the Indians were forced to govern their half of the Punjab 
from a house with one telephone line and a radio installed in 
a toilet. 

The situation in Pakistan was far worse. The new nation 
was verging on chaos. Jinnah’s missing croquet set had been 
located, but little else. Hundreds of railway carriages crammed 
with material destined for the new state disappeared, were 
stolen, or turned up at the wrong destination. In Karachi, the 
desks and chairs hadn’t arrived. Government employees had 
to squat on the sidewalks in front of their offices, pecking out 
on their typewriters the first official texts of the largest Moslem 
nation in the world. Inside, their seniors governed their new 
nation sitting on crates and boxes. 

The economy was in a turmoil. Pakistan had warehouses 
bulging with hide, jute and cotton and no tanneries, factories 
or mills to process it. She produced a quarter of the sub- 
continent’s tobacco but did not have a match factory in which 


Freedom at Midnight 

to produce matches to light her smokers’ cigarettes. The bank- 
ing system was paralysed because the banks’ Hindu managers 
and clerks had fled to India. 

It was over her share of the goods of the old Indian Army, 
however, that Pakistan encountered Indian bad faith in a way 
that seemed tantamount to a deliberate effort to jeopardize 
her survival. Of the 170,000 tons of army stores Pakistan was 
allotted under the Partition Agreement, she would ultimately 
get 6000. Three hundred special trains had been assigned to 
carry her arms and ordnance. Three arrived. Opening them, 
a team of Pakistani officers discovered they contained 5000 
pairs of shoes, 5000 unserviceable rifles, a consignment of 
nurses’ smocks, and a number of wooden crates stuffed with 
bricks and prophylactics. 

This trickery left bitter memories in Pakistan and a deep- 
seated conviction among many that their Indian neighbours 
were trying to strangle them in the cradle. They were not alone 
in that conviction. Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, who’d 
been asked to stay on to supervise the division of the armies’ 
goods, informed the British Government, ‘I have no hesitation 
whatsoever in affirming that the present Indian Cabinet is 
implacably determined to do all in its power to prevent the 
establishment of the Dominion of Pakistan.’ 

It was not India’s machinations, however, that were the real 
threat to Pakistan. The new nation, like its Indian neighbour, 
was about to be engulfed by the most massive migration in 
human history. The violence racking the Punjab was producing 
its inevitable result, the result sought by the desperate men 
behind it on both sides of the border. From one end of the 
Punjab to the other, taking whatever possessions they could 
carry, by car, bicycle, train, mule, bullock cart, and on foot, a 
terrified people were fleeing their homes, rushing in headlong 
flight towards any promise of safety. They would produce an 
exchange of population, an outpouring of humanity, on a scale 
and of an intensity never before recorded. By the time the 
movement reached floodtide in late September, five million 


‘Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

human beings would clog the roads and fields of the Punjab. 
Ten and a half million people, enough to form, if they joined 
hands, a column stretching from Calcutta to New York, would 
be uprooted, most of them in the brief span of three months. 
Their unprecedented exodus would create ten times the 
number of refugees the creation' of Israel would produce in 
the Middle East, three or four times the number of displaced 
persons who’d fled eastern Europe after the war. It began, for 
the wretches who composed it, in a million different ways with 
a million different parting gestures. 

For the Moslems of the Indian town of Karnal, north of 
Delhi, the word was announced by a drummer marching 
through their neighbourhoods, thumping his drum, proclaim- 
ing in Urdu, ‘For the protection of the Moslem population, 
trains have arrived to carry them to Pakistan.’ Twenty thou- 
sand people left their homes within an hour, marching off to 
the railway station to the beat of the drum. A town crier 
informed the 2000 Moslems of the Indian town of Kasauli 
that they had twenty-four hours to leave. Assembled at dawn 
the following morning on a parade ground, all their belongings 
except one blanket apiece and the clothes they wore were taken 
from them. Then, a pathetic gaggle of people, they started to 
walk towards their Promised Land. 

Madanlal Pahwa, the man who’d cowered in his aunt’s house 
thinking ‘We’re like sheep waiting for a slaughter’, left in a 
bus belonging to his cousin. Everything the family could move 
went into the bus: furniture, clothes, money, gold, pictures of 
Shiva. Everything except its most important member, Madan- 
lal’s father. He refused to leave because his astrologer had told 
him 20 August 1947 was not an auspicious day to begin a 
journey. Despite the fact that a Moslem friend had warned 
him an attack on the Hindus was planned for that day, despite 
the murders and burning that had already occurred, he refused 
to budge from his home until the moment his astrologer had 
assured him was propitious: 23 August at 9.30 in the morning. 

No one was immune. The Moslem patients at the Lady 
Linlithgow TB Sanatorium in Kasauli were ordered out of the 


Freedom at Midnight 

clinic by their Hindu doctors. Some of them had only one 
lung; others were recovering from operations, but they were 
taken to the sanatorium’s gates and told to start walking to 
Pakistan. In Pakistan the twenty-five sadhus of the Baba Lai 
ashram were driven out of the buildings where they had 
devoted their lives to prayer, meditation, yoga and Hindu 
study. Wrapped in their orange robes, their saint, Swami Sun- 
dar, on the ashram’s miraculous white horse at their head, 
they marched off chanting mantras , while behind them a mob 
set their ashram ablaze. 

For most refugees, the major concern at the instant of their 
departure was to save what few possessions they could. B. R. 
Adalkha, a wealthy Hindu merchant in Montgomery, wrapped 
40,000 rupees in a money-belt around his waist ‘for bribing 
the Moslems along their way not to kill us’. Many, particularly 
wealthy Hindus, tended to have their life-savings in jewels 
and gold bangles. One Hindu farmer outside Lahore carefully 
wrapped all his wife’s gold and jewellery in packages and tossed 
them into his well. He planned to return one day with a 
diver to recover them. Mati Das, a Hindu grain merchant in 
Rawalpindi, packed the fruits of a life’s efforts, 30,000 rupees 
and forty tolas of gold, into a little box. To make sure he 
would not lose it, he tied it to his wrist. It was a useless 
precaution. In a few days time a Moslem assailant would steal 
the box by the simple expedient of cutting off Das’s arm. 

The most precious possession of Renu Braunbhai, the wife 
of a poor Hindu peasant in the Mianwalli district, was untrans- 
portable. It was her cow. The devout Hindu had a special 
veneration for the ageing beast. Sure ‘the Moslems would kill 
it to eat it’, she set it free. Overcome by the beast’s mournful 
stare, she accomplished a last action on its behalf. She took 
vermilion powder and pressed a red tilak dot on its forehead 
to bring it luck 

Alia Hydr, a wealthy Moslem girl from Lucknow, managed 
to flee by plane with her mother and sister. They were leaving 
for a lifetime but, like tourists setting out on a trip, they were 
allowed only twenty kilos of luggage. She could never forget 


‘ Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

the pathetic morning they spent in the family kitchen weighing 
out their most precious possessions on the balance their ser- 
vants had used to weigh flour and rice. Her sister finally selec- 
ted her red and gold embroidered wedding sari. Her mother 
picked her blue velvet prayer rug, its surface emblazoned, curi- 
ously, with the star of David. Alia took a Koran, its cover in 
rosewood inlaid with mother of pearl. 

The concern of Baldev Raj, a wealthy Hindu farmer near 
Mianwallah, was not to save his wealth before leaving but to 
destroy it. Certain they would be attacked and robbed during 
their flight, Raj and his five brothers took the contents of the 
family safe to the roof of his home. He was not going to ‘let 
my money fall into the hands of some lazy Moslem’. They 
heaped their currency into a pile. Then, weeping hysterically, 
they lit the most extraordinary bonfire their eyes would ever 
behold: their lifetime savings literally going up in flames. 

Some left determined to return. Ahmed Abbas, a Moslem 
journalist from Panipat north of Delhi, had always opposed 
Pakistan, and it was not to Jinnah’s Promised Land he chose 
to flee, but to Delhi. Going out of the house, Abbas’s mother 
hung a sign on the door. ‘This house belongs to the Abbas 
family which has decided not to go to Pakistan’, it read. ‘This 
family is only temporarily going to Delhi and will return.’ 

For Vickie Noon, the beautiful English wife of one of Paki- 
stan’s most important men, Sir Feroz Khan Noon, a harrowing 
flight began with the arrival of an unknown messenger on her 
doorstep in Kulu, her vacation home. It was in a Hindu area 
near Simla which had gone to India. 

‘They’re coming to your house tonight,’ he said. She had 
two shotguns and a revolver which belonged to her husband 
who was already in Lahore. She armed two trusted Moslem 
servants with the shotguns. Although she’d never fired a gun 
in her life, she kept the revolver herself. As darkness fell, she 
could see bursts of flames flare up in the valley leading towards 
her home, the houses of her Moslem neighbours being set 
ablaze by Hindu mobs. Slowly, that chain of fires crept towards 
her. The 22-year-old girl kept thinking of a line a pair of 


Freedom at Midnight 

Americans she’d met in the valley had taught her. They were 
Buddhist converts and it was a cornerstone of their new faith: 
‘Everything is transitory.’ Suddenly, at 11.00, a savage down- 
pour extinguished the fires below her. She was saved. The next 
morning she fled to the safety of the palace of a close friend, 
the Hindu Raja of Mandi. Her relief would be temporary, 
however. An adventure was only just beginning for the beauti- 
ful English girl. 

In fear and bitterness, hatred and rancour, they thus set 
out, first in thousands, then hundreds of thousands, finally 
inundating in their wretched millions the roads and railways 
of the Punjab. They were going to pose a terrible problem to 
the two new nations struggling to survive, a menace of epi- 
demic, famine, resettlement on a mind-numbing scale. They 
became, inevitably, the carriers of the terrible hysteria sweeping 
the Punjab, spreading its virus wherever they passed with their 
tales of horror, creating in turn new outbursts of violence to 
throw still more helpless people on to the roads. Their terrible 
migration would alter for ever the face and character of one 
of the richest swathes of land on the globe. Barely a Moslem 
would remain at many of the sites where the Moghuls had 
produced one of Islam’s great flowerings. Barely a thousand 
Sikhs and Hindus would remain behind of the 600,000 who 
had dwelt in Lahore. In late August, as the violence reached 
a crescendo, anonymous hands performed before fleeing a 
gesture that was an epitaph to Lahore s lost dream, a silent 
and bitter commentary on what freedom’s first hours had 
meant to so many Punjabis. Someone laid a black wreath of 
mourning at the base of the city’s famous statue of Queen 

Calcutta, August 1947 

This time they were half a million waiting for him. The ‘Miracle 
of Calcutta’ still held. Five hundred thousand dark faces, 
Hindus and Moslems in one fraternal cohort, covered the 
immense sweep of Calcutta’s Maidan, whose green expanse had 


‘ Our People Have Gone Mad' 

once been the preserve of the polo ponies and white-flannelled 
cricketers. Gandhi himself, in the charitable breadth of his 
vision, could not have imagined a spectacle to match it. On 
this August day, the day fixed by the Moslem calendar for the 
great Islamic festival of Id el Kebir, the crowds had come to 
his evening prayer meeting in unprecedented numbers. 

Since dawn, tens of thousands of Hindus and Moslems had 
flowed past the windows of the crumbling ruin in which the 
elderly leader had taken up residence, seeking his blessing, 
offering him flowers and sweets. As it was Monday, his day 
of silence, Gandhi spent much of the day scrawling for his 
visitors little notes of gratitude and good wishes. As he did so, 
thousands of Hindus and Moslems paraded together through 
the streets. They chanted slogans of unity and friendship, 
swapped cigarettes, sprayed each other with rosewater, 
exchanged cakes and sweets. 

When Gandhi finally reached the platform raised for his 
prayer meeting in the middle of the Maidan, a wild burst of 
enthusiasm swept the crowd. At precisely seven o’clock, visibly 
moved by the fabulous spectacle of so much love and brother- 
hood shimmering before him, Gandhi rose and joined his 
hands in the traditional Indian sign of greeting to the crowd. 
Then the ageing Hindu leader broke his pledge of silence to 
cry out in Urdu, the tongue of India’s Moslems, ‘Id Mubarak 

- Happy Id’. 

For hundreds of thousands of Punjabis, the first instinctive 
reflex in the cataclysm shaking their province was to rush 
towards the little brick and tile buildings that offered in each 
important town a reassuring symbol of organization and order 

- the railway station. The names of the trains which for 
generations had rumbled past their cement platforms were 
elements of the Indian legend and measures of one of Britain’s 
most substantial achievements on the sub-continent. The 
Frontier Mail, the Calcutta-Peshawar Express, the Bombay- 
Madras, had, like the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian and 
the trains of the Union Pacific, bound up a continent and 


Freedom at Midnight 

sown along their tracks the benefits of technology and progress. 

Now, in the late summer of 1947, those trains would become 
for hundreds of thousands of Indians the best hope of fleeing 
the nightmares surrounding them. For tens of thousands of 
others they would become rolling coffins. During those terrible 
days the appearance of a locomotive in scores of Punjabi 
stations provoked the same frenzied scenes. Like a ship’s prow 
cutting through a heavy sea, those engines rolled through the 
mass of scrambling humans choking the platforms, crushing 
to a pulp of blood and bone the hapless few inevitably shoved 
into their path. Sometimes their passengers would have been 
waiting for days, often without food and water, under the 
remorseless sun of a summer the monsoon refused to end. In 
a concert of tears and shrieks, the crowd would throw itself 
on the doors and windows of each wagon. They jammed their 
bodies and the few belongings they carried into each compart- 
ment so that the train’s flanks seemed to expand under the 
pressure of the humans inside. Dozens more fought for a 
hand-hold at each door, on the steps, on the couplings, until 
a dense cluster of humans enfolded each car like a horde of 
flies swarming over a sugar cube. When there were no hand- 
holds left, hundreds more scrambled on to their rounded roofs, 
clinging in precarious uncertainty to the hot metal until each 
roof was lined by its dense wall of refugees. 

Crushed under that load of misery, the odour of coal smoke 
overwhelmed by the stench of sweating bodies, their whistles 
drowned by the shouts of the wretches whom they carried, 
the trains rolled off, bearing their pitiful burdens to death or 
a Promised Land. 

For Nihal Bhrannbi, a Hindu schoolteacher, his wife and 
six children, that voyage to safety never even began. After 
waiting for six hours for their train to leave the station of the 
little Pakistani town in which he’d taught for twenty years, 
Nihal and his family finally heard the shriek of the locomotive’s 
whistle. The only departure it heralded, however, was that of 
the engine. As it disappeared, a howling horde of Moslems 
swept down on the station brandishing clubs, homemade 


‘Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

spears and hatchets. Screaming ‘ Allah Akhbar - God is Great’, 
they charged into the train, lashing at every Hindu in sight. 
Some threw the helpless passengers out of their compartment 
windows to the platform where their colleagues waited like 
butchers to slaughter them. A few Hindus tried to run but the 
green-shirted Moslems pursued them, killed them and hurled 
them, the dead and the dying, into a well in front of the 
station. The schoolteacher, his wife and six children clung to 
each other in terror in their compartment. The Moslems 
battered their way inside and began to shoot. 

‘The bullets hit my husband and my only son,’ Nihal’s wife 
would always remember. ‘My son was crying “Water, water!” 
I had none to give him. I cried for help. None came near me. 
Slowly my son stopped crying and his eyes closed. My husband 
was speechless. Blood was oozing out of his head. Suddenly 
he kicked his legs about. Then he was silent. I tried to wake 
them up by shaking their bodies. There was no response. 

‘My daughters were clinging to me and holding my sari 
tight. The Moslems threw us outside. They carried away my 
three eldest daughters. The eldest was beaten on the head. She 
stretched her hands to me and cried: “Ma, Ma.” I could not 

‘Some time later the Moslems took my husband and son 
from the train and threw them into the well. It was the end 
of them. I turned hysterical. I shouted like a mad woman. I 
lost all feelings, even for the two living children. I was like a 
dead person.’ 

Only 100 of the 2000 people in her train would, like the 
schoolteacher’s wife, survive to complete their terrible journey 
to the other end of the Punjab. 

Kashmiri Lai, the Hindu who had waited to begin his flight 
on a date his astrologer had proclaimed propitious, discovered 
on one of those ill-fated trains that astrology is an inexact 
science. Fourteen miles short of the safety of the Indian front- 
ier, a band of Moslems climbed on to his slow-moving train. 
They leapt on the women in the neighbouring compartment, 
ripping the gold bangles and rings from their ankles, wrists. 

37 » 

Freedom at Midnight 

arms and noses. Half a dozen men threw the younger women 
out the window, then leapt after them. 

The rest turned to Lai's compartment. One of them all but 
beheaded the woman opposite Lai with a sword stroke. For a 
grotesque instant her head, still attached to her neck by a few 
tendons, hung over her shoulders like a broken doll's head, 
while in her lap the baby she'd been nursing grinned at her. 
A pair of daggers stabbed Lai. He slumped to the floor to 
be covered almost immediately by the bodies of his fellow 
passengers. Just before losing consciousness, he felt an extra- 
ordinary sensation: a Moslem looter stealing the shoes off his 

A few cars away, spice-seller Dhani Ran threw his wife and 
four children on to the floor as the first volleys struck the 
train. A pile of wounded fell on top of them too. As their 
blood flowed over him, Ran had an idea to which he would 
owe, perhaps, his and his children’s lives. He dipped his hands 
in the wounds of his dying neighbours and smeared their 
blood over his own and his children’s face so the attackers 
might leave them for dead. 

As the pace of the flight in both directions grew, those 
train-loads of wretched refugees became the prime targets of 
assault on both sides of the border. They were ambushed while 
they stood in stations or in the open country. Tracks were 
torn up to derail them in front of waiting hordes of assailants. 
Accomplices smuggled into their compartments forced them 
to stop at pre-chosen sites by pulling on the emergency cord. 
Engineers were bribed or cowed into delivering their passen- 
gers into an ambush. On both sides of the border a man's 
sexual organ became, in the truest sense, his staff of life. In 
India, Sikhs and Hindus prowled the cars of ambushed trains, 
slaughtering every male they found who was circumcized. In 
Pakistan, Moslems raced along the trains murdering every man 
who was not. 

There were periods of four and five days at a stretch during 
which not a single train reached Lahore or Amritsar without 
its complement of dead and wounded. Aswini Dubey, the 


‘Our People Have Gone Mad’ 

Indian Army colonel who’d been overwhelmed with joy on 
Independence Day at the sight of his country’s flag flying over 
the mess where he’d been humbled by his British superiors, 
had a stark demonstration of the price of that freedom in 
Lahore where he was an Indian liaison officer. A train-load of 
dead and wounded rolled into the railway station. As it 
stopped, blood seeped out from under the doors of each of 
its silent compartments, dripping on to the rails ‘like water 
flowing out of a refrigerator car on a hot day’. 

As in so many other areas that autumn, the Sikh jatthas 
distinguished themselves by the organization and savagery of 
their attacks, besmirching by their viciousness the name of a 
great people. Once, having ambushed a train in Amritsar, they 
sent a party disguised as relief workers back through the train, 
killing any victims they’d missed in their original slaughter. 
Margaret Bourke-White, Life magazine’s great photographer, 
remembered seeing a group of those Sikhs in Amritsar station, 
‘venerable in their long beards and wearing the bright blue 
turbans of the Akali sect, sitting cross-legged along the plat- 
form’. Each ‘held a long curved sabre across his knee - waiting 
quietly for the next train’. 

Military guards were placed on the trains but all too often 
they failed to fire on their attackers if they were from the same 
community. There were heroes, too. Puzzled by the unexpected 
slackening of the speed of his train sixty miles short of the 
Pakistan border, Ahmed Zahur, a railway worker, scrambled 
to the locomotive. There he spotted a pair of Sikhs handing 
the train’s Hindu engineer a wad of rupee notes as a bribe to 
stop the train in Amritsar station. The terrified Zahur slipped 
back to warn the British lieutenant commanding their escort 
of what he’d seen. Leaping along the roofs of the wagons like 
mail-train robbers in a western, the young officer and two of 
his men raced to the locomotive. Revolver in hand, the 
Britisher ordered the engineer to speed up. His reply was to 
slam on the brakes. The Britisher knocked him Out with his 
pistol butt. While his soldiers tied up the engineer, he took 
over the train’s control. Minutes later, Zahur and his 3000 

38 o 

Freedom at Midnight 

Moslem passengers were treated to an extraordinary spectacle. 
Whistle shrieking, the young Britisher on the footplate, their 
train rocketed through Amritsar station at sixty miles an hour 
past a stunned army of Sikhs, swords glinting, waiting to mas- 
sacre them. Safely delivered to Pakistan, the train’s grateful 
Moslem passengers hung a garland around the Englishman’s 
neck. It was not made of the traditional marigold blooms, 
however, but currency notes. 

No trains were immune. The train bearing hundreds of 
Moslem servants of the old viceregal establishment in Simla 
down to Delhi was stopped at the sound of an exploding fire 
cracker in Sonipat station. Hundreds of Sikhs rushed the train. 
On board, Hindus turned on the Moslems at whose sides 
they’d served the Empire. In their compartment, Sarah Ismay, 
daughter of Lord Ismay, and her fiance, Flight-Lieutenant 
Wenty Beaumont, one of Lord Mountbatten’s ADCs, took 
out a pair of pistols. Concealed under a pile of suitcases at 
their feet was a third occupant of the compartment, invited 
there because of the special circumstances. It was their Moslem 
bearer, Abdul Hamid. 

A pair of well-dressed, well-spoken Hindus opened the door 
of the compartment and demanded to look for the Moslem 
travelling with them. At their words, the suitcases hiding the 
bearer shook from the frightened man’s trembling. 

‘One step forward and you’re dead,’ Sarah told the Hindus, 
pointing her Smith and Wesson at them. Abdul Hamid would 
be the only Moslem on the train to reach Delhi alive. 

Those trains of death, as they became known, would form 
a part of the grisly Punjab legend in the years to come, a 
compendium of ghastly tales each more chilling than the next. 
Richard Fisher, a representative of the American Caterpillar 
Tractor Company, would be haunted for the rest of his life by 
the one through which he lived. Halfway between Quetta and 
Lahore, a group of Moslems stopped his train. While one band 
of Moslems raced through the train, throwing any Sikh they 
found out of the window, another waited on the platform to 
beat each victim to death with strange clubs three feet long, 

3 8i 

‘ Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

curving at one end into a half moon. The horrified mid- 
westerner watched as thirteen Sikhs were thrown out to die 
in a sickening cacophony of screams and shattering bones. 
Between victims, the Moslems waved their bloody clubs, 
shouting for more. As the train pulled out, leaving the thirteen 
battered Sikh corpses behind, Fisher finally learned what the 
instruments of their destruction had been. They were hockey 

His surprises were not quite over. Another startling image 
awaited the American in Lahore station. Above the corpses 
along the station’s platform, a bizarre beacon amidst its chaos, 
was a sign similar to those posted in all the railway stations 
of the Punjab. It was a reminder of those happier days when 
the province of the Five Rivers had been ‘a model of order 
and prosperity’. 

‘A complaint book is held at the disposition of travellers in 
the station master’s office,’ it read. ‘Any traveller wishing to 
lodge a complaint about the services encountered during his 
journey is invited to make use of it.’ 

Calcutta , August 1947 

This time, they were almost a million waiting for him. Day 
after day, during that terrible fortnight when the Punjab had 
gone berserk, the size of the crowds attending Gandhi’s regular 
evening prayer meeting grew, transforming in their steady, 
spectacular growth the savage metropolis into an oasis of peace 
and fraternity. The most miserable city-dwellers in the world 
had heard the message of the frail messenger of love and 
mastered their ancestral urge for violence and hate. The miracle 
of Calcutta had held; the city, as the New York Times noted, 
‘was the wonder of India’. 

Gandhi, with characteristic humility, refused to take credit 
for it. ‘We are toys in the hands of God,’ he wrote in his paper, 
the Harijan . ‘He makes us dance to His tune.’ A letter from 
New Delhi, however, rendered to that humble Caesar the 
honour he was due. ‘In the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and 


Freedom at Midnight 

large-scale rioting on our hands/ Louis Mountbatten wrote to 
his ‘dejected sparrow*. 

‘In Bengal, our force consists of one man and there is no 
rioting/ As a military leader and an administrator the last 
Viceroy humbly asked ‘to be allowed to pay tribute to my One 
Man Boundary Force*. 

The Punjab , August 1947 

The two men rode side by side in an open car. Three decades 
of struggle against British rule should have earned the Prime 
Ministers of the new nations of Pakistan and India the right 
to ride in triumph through jubilant crowds of their admiring 
countrymen. Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan rode 
instead in depressed silence through scenes of horror and mis- 
ery, the faces their countrymen turned towards them alight 
with every emotion but gratitude at the blessings freedom had 
brought them. For the second time, the two men toured the 
Punjab, struggling to find some formula to restore order to 
its chaotic landscape. 

Everything had escaped their control. Their police had col- 
lapsed. Their armies remained loyal - but only just. Indiffer- 
ence to, sometimes even active complicity in what was going 
on, paralysed their civil administration. Now as their car sped 
past devastated village after devastated village, unharvested 
fields, wretched columns of refugees, Hindus and Sikhs trudg- 
ing dumbly east, Moslems dumbly west, the two leaders, an 
aide noticed, seemed to shrink into the back seat of the car, 
collapsing, almost, under the burden of their misery. 

At last Nehru broke the oppressive silence. ‘What hell this 
partition has brought us/ he said to Liaquat in a half whisper. 
‘We never foresaw anything like this when we agreed to it. 
We*ve been brothers. How could this have happened?’ 

‘Our people have gone mad/ Liaquat replied. 

Suddenly a figure broke from a line of refugees and bolted 
for their car. It was a man, a Hindu, his face almost disfigured 
with anguish, his body convulsed with sobs. He had recognized 


'Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

Nehru. Nehru was a big man, a sahib from Delhi, from the 
government, who could do something. Tears pouring down 
his face to mix with the mucus flowing from his nose, his 
contorted fingers clawing the air in a beseeching ballet, the 
unknown Hindu begged Nehru to help him. Three miles up 
the road a band of Moslems had sprung at his refugee column 
from the sugar cane and snatched away his only child, a 10- 
year-old daughter. He loved his little girl, he cried to Nehru, 
he loved her very much. 'Get her back for me, please, get her 

Nehru tumbled back on the car seat, almost, as he would 
tell an aide, physically ill at this stark, direct confrontation 
with the miseries overwhelming so many of his countrymen. 
He was Prime Minister of 300 million people yet he was help- 
less to aid this one frantically weeping man, begging him to 
perform a miracle and get his little daughter back. Overcome 
with anguish, Nehru slumped forward clutching his head in 
his hands while his escort gently removed the grief-stricken 
father from the running board of his car. 

That night, still shaken by his experience, Nehru could not 
sleep. For hours he paced the corridor of the house in Lahore in 
which he was staying, worrying and thinking. The communal 
cruelty of which his people had suddenly shown themselves 
capable was a shocking revelation to Nehru. Patel, his friendly 
foe, could, as he had in an earlier meeting, dismiss it with a 
shrug of his shoulders and the words: 'Ah, this had to happen. 
Nehru could not. Every fibre of his being was repelled by the 
hatred sweeping the Punjab. He was not afraid to oppose it, 
even at the risk of losing the support of his Hindu countrymen. 

The trouble was he didn’t know how. The cataclysm shaking 
the Punjab had thrust upon him a burden for which nothing 
in his life had prepared him. He reacted by lashing out with his 
quick, impetuous temper in specific situations. That afternoon, 
near Amritsar, informed the Sikhs of a village were planning 
a massacre of their Moslem neighbours, he’d ordered the Sikh 
leaders to be brought to him under an enormous banyan tree. 

'I hear you are planning to massacre your Moslem neigh- 


Freedom at Midnight 

hours tonight,’ he told them. ‘If a hair on their heads is 
touched, I will have you reassembled here at dawn tomorrow 
and personally give my bodyguards the orders to shoot the lot 
of you.’ 

Nehru’s dilemma was how to translate an effective, isolated 
action like that to the scale of the second largest nation in the 
world, a nation beset by problems no new nation had ever 
faced. Worried and exhausted, he woke his ADC at 2.30 and 
asked him to raise Delhi on the wireless for the latest report. 
In that litany of bad news there was one item which might 
console him. The ageing leader he’d forsaken on the issue of 
partition was still performing his miracle. Calcutta was quiet. 

The signal was one sharp blast of a whistle. At its note, six 
Hindus glided up behind the two middle-aged men walking 
peacefully down the middle of the avenue. The pair started to 
run, but there was no escape. Shrieking ‘Moslem, Moslem’, 
the teenage Hindus pummelled them to the ground. The two 
terrorized men swore they were Hindus, calling out Hindu 
names, claiming addresses in Hindu neighbourhoods. Their 
assailants’ 17-year-old leader, a student named Sunil Roy, 
wanted better proof than that. He ripped open the folds of 
their dhotis. Both bore the stigmata of the faith of Mohammed: 
they were circumcized. 

One of their teenage captors threw a towel over their heads; 
another knotted their arms with a rope. Followed by a growing 
crowd waving clubs, knives and iron bars, the two wretched 
men were herded down the street, the youths, young enough 
to have been their sons, shouting for their blood. Their Way 
of the Cross covered 200 yards down to the majestic bend of 
a river. 

‘In normal times,’ their 17-year-old captor later declared, 
‘we would not have polluted the sacred water with Moslem 
blood. There were many religious Hindus doing puja on the 
banks of the river. Some women were taking baths.’ 

They pushed their victims into the water up to their waists. 
An iron crowbar flashed into the sky and landed with a thump 


‘Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

on the head of the first whimpering Moslem. His skull frac- 
tured, the poor man crumpled into the river, a carmine halo 
forming a circle on its surface where his head had slipped 
beneath the waters. 

The other man fought for his life. ‘The same boy hit him 
on the head/ the chief assassin recalled. ‘Children threw bricks 
in his face. Another stabbed him in the neck to be very Sure 
he was dead/ 

Around the site the Hindu worshippers continued their 
prayers, their devotions undisturbed by the murder being com- 
mitted a few yards away. Roy kicked the two bodies out 
towards midstream where the river’s current could carry them 
away. As they disappeared and the wake left by their blood 
blended with the River Hooghly’s muddy water, a cry, repeated 
three times, rose from their killers: ‘ Kali Mayi Ki Jai! - Long 
live the Goddess Kali!’ 

It was early morning, 31 August 1947. After sixteen miracu- 
lous days, the virus had finally affected the City of Dreadful 
Night. The Peace of Calcutta had been shattered. As elsewhere, 
the infection had been spread by train-loads of refugees arriv- 
ing with their tales of horror from the Punjab. Jts ignition was 
provided by the rumour, never substantiated, that a Hindu 
boy had been beaten to death by Moslems on a trolley car. 

At ten o’clock that night a parade of young Hindu fanatics 
burst into the courtyard of Hydari House, demanding to see 
the Mahatma. Stretched on his straw pallet between his faithful 
Manu and another great-niece, Abha, Gandhi was asleep. 
Thrusting forward a dazed and bandaged youth they claimed 
had been beaten by Moslems, the mob began to shriek slogans 
and hurl rocks at the house. Manu and Abha woke up and 
rushed to the veranda, trying to calm the crowd. It was no 
use. Pushing aside Gandhi’s supporters, the crowd spilled into 
the interior of the house. Gandhi, aroused by the fracas, got 
up to face them. ‘What madness is this?’ he asked. ‘I offer 
myself for attack.’ 

This time his words were lost in the crowd’s din. Two 
Moslems, one beaten and bloody, escaped its ranks and rushed 


Freedom at Midnight 

to crouch behind the protecting outline of Gandhi’s frame. 
From the crowd a blackjack zipped towards them, missing the 
Mahatma’s head by inches, to crash into the wall behind him. 

At that moment the police, summoned by one of Gandhi’s 
worried followers, reached the house. A shaken Gandhi lay 
back down on his straw pallet, unable to sleep. ‘The Miracle 
of Calcutta,’ he noted, ‘has proved to be a nine days’ wonder.’ 

What few illusions the Mahatma may have had left about 
Calcutta’s peace were shattered the next day. Shortly after noon 
a concerted burst of attacks were launched on those Moslem 
slums whose inhabitants, inspired by Gandhi’s miracle, had 
returned to their homes. In most cases the attackers were led 
by fanatics of the RSSS, the Hindu extremist organization 
whose followers had saluted their orange swastika-emblazoned 
flag in Poona on Independence Day. On Beliaghata Road, a 
few hundred yards from Gandhi’s residence, a pair of hand 
grenades were tossed into a truck carrying frightened Moslems 
away from the neighbourhood. 

Gandhi immediately rushed to the site. The spectacle sick- 
ened him. The two dead were poor day-labourers dressed in 
rags. Eyes glossy, they lay in a sticky mash of blood, hordes 
of flies creeping over the lips of their open wounds. A four- 
anna piece had tumbled from the rags of one of them and 
sparkled on the pavement beside his body. Gandhi stood 
hypnotized by the cold-blooded butchery. So sickened was he 
by the sight that he refused his evening meal. He lapsed into 
moody silence. ‘I am praying for light,’ he said. ‘I am searching 
deep within myself. In that, silence helps.’ 

That evening, after a brief stroll, he sat down on his straw 
pallet and began to draft a public proclamation. He had found 
the answer for which he’d been searching. The decision his 
paper announced was irrevocable. To restore sanity to Cal- 
cutta, Gandhi was going to submit his 78-year-old body to a 
fast unto death. 

The weapon Gandhi was going to brandish to restore sanity 
to Calcutta was a singularly anomalous one to employ in a 


‘ Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

country in which for centuries death from hunger had been a 
constant and common curse. Yet it was a device as old as 
India. The ancient prayer of the rishis y Hinduism's earliest 
sages - ‘If you do that, it is I who will die' - had never ceased 
to inspire a people usually deprived of any other means of 
coercion. In the India of 1947, peasants continued to fast on 
the doorsteps of money-lenders, beseeching by their suffering 
a suspension of their debts. Creditors too could fast to force 
their debtors to meet their obligations. Gandhi’s genius had 
been to give a national dimension to what had been an indi- 
vidual tactic. 

In the hands of that cunning little man the fast became 
the most potent weapon ever wielded by an unarmed and 
underdeveloped people. Because a fast forced on an adversary 
a sense of urgency that compelled him to face an issue, Gandhi 
resorted to it whenever he found himself confronted by an 
insurmountable obstacle. 

His career was studded by the achievements won by his 
major fasts. Sixteen times, for great or minor reasons, he had 
publicly refused to take nourishment. Twice his fasts had 
covered twenty-one days, carrying him to life’s outer frontiers. 
Whether they’d been in South Africa for racial justice, or in 
India for Hindu-Moslem unity, to end the scourge of 
Untouchability or to hasten Britain’s departure, Gandhi’s fasts 
had moved hundreds of millions of people around the globe. 
They were as much a part of his public image as his bamboo 
stave, his dhoti and his bald head. A nation, 95% of whose 
inhabitants could not read and had no access to a radio, still 
managed somehow to follow each of Gandhi’s slow cruci- 
fixions, shuddering in rare and instinctive unity whenever he 
was menaced by death. 

Fasting was for Gandhi, first of all, a form of prayer, the 
best way to allow the spirit to dominate the flesh. Like sexual 
continence, it was an element essential to man’s spiritual pro- 
gress. ‘I believe,’ he stressed, ‘that soul force can only be 
increased through the increasing domination of the flesh. We 
forget too easily that food was not made to delight the palate, 


Freedom at Midnight 

but to sustain the body as our slave.’ In private, fasts offered 
him the perfect tool with which to fulfil his constant need for 

In public the self-imposed suffering of a fast made it, Gandhi 
held, the most effective arm in the arsenal of non-violence, 
and he became the world’s greatest theoretician on its use. A 
fast, Gandhi believed, could be undertaken only under certain 
conditions. It was useless to fast against an enemy on whose 
love and affection the faster had no claim. It would have 
been absurd and against his theories for a Jewish inmate of 
Buchenwald to employ a fast against his S.S. captors or for a 
prisoner in a Siberian gulag to fast against his Stalinist guards. 
Had a Hitler or Stalin ruled India instead of the British, the 
fast, Gandhi acknowledged, would have been an ineffectual 

A fast gave a problem a vital dimension of time. Its dramatic 
menace forced people’s thoughts out of the ruts in which they 
were accustomed to run and made them face new concepts. 
To be effective, a political fast had to be accompanied by 
publicity. It was a weapon to be used rarely and only after 
careful thought because, if repeated too often, it could become 
an object of ridicule. 

Gandhi employed two kinds of public fasts. The first and 
most dramatic was a fast unto death’ in which he vowed to 
achieve a specific end or starve. The second was a fast for a 
fixed, predetermined duration. Sometimes it was a form of 
personal penance, sometimes a public atonement for his fol- 
lowers’ errors, a compelling way to bring them back to the 
Mahatma’s discipline. 

A set of rigorous rules governed them. Gandhi drank only 
water mixed with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. Sometimes 
before beginning he stipulated that his follovyers might add 
the juice of one sweet lime or a lemon to the water to make 
it palatable. He had an aversion, understandable in the circum- 
stances, to its taste. In 1924, during his first twenty-one days’ 
fast, he had allowed his doctors to administer him a glucose 
enema when he weakened towards the end, since he was not 

‘ Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 389 

embarked on a fast unto death, but one of a precisely defined 

Now, approaching his seventy-eighth birthday, Gandhi pre- 
pared to inflict on himself once again the self-imposed suffer- 
ing of a public fast. This time he. was employing his weapon 
on a new kind of conflict. He was fasting not against the British 
but against his own countrymen and the irrational frenzy grip- 
ping them. To save the lives of thousands of innocents who 
might die in Calcutta’s violence, he was preparing to risk on 
their behalf what life remained in his elderly body. 

Aware of the terrible risks a fast at his age would mean, 
Gandhi’s disciples sought desperately to dissuade him. 

‘Bapu,’ questioned his old Congress ally become Bengal’s 
first Indian governor, C. R. Rajagopalachari, ‘how can one fast 
against goondasV 

‘I want to touch the heart of those who are behind the 
goondas^ Gandhi replied. 

‘But if you die,’ his old follower pleaded, ‘the conflagration 
you are trying to end will be even worse.’ 

‘At least,’ Gandhi answered, ‘I won’t be a living witness to 

Nothing was going to move him. Late in the evening of 1 
September, Gandhi woke Manu and Abha to inform them his 
fast had begun with the supper he’d been unable to eat after 
viewing the victims in front of Hydari House. He would suc- 
ceed or die, he said. ‘Either there will be peace in Calcutta or 
I will be dead.’ 

This time Gandhi’s physical forces crumbled with dizzying 
speed. The emotional strain he’d been under since New Year’s 
Day had left its trace. 

The following day his doctor discovered his heart was 
already missing one beat in four. After a midday massage 
and a warm-water enema, he absorbed a litre of water and 
bicarbonate of soda. Shortly thereafter his voice became so 
weak it was barely a whisper. 

In a few hours the news of the challenge he’d thrown down 


Freedom at Midnight 

swept across Calcutta and scores of anxious visitors thronged 
the streets around Hydari House. But the epidemic of violence 
already launched could not be checked in a day. Fires, looting, 
killing continued to plague the city. From his pallet Gandhi 
himself could hear a sinister sound betokening still more kill- 
ings, a distant echo of gunfire. 

As he lay in agony his followers sought out the leaders of 
the city’s Hindu extremists. Thousands of their fellow Hindus 
in Noakhali survived, they pointed out, because of the pledge 
Gandhi had extracted from Noakhali’s Moslem leaders. If the 
slaughter of Moslems in Calcutta continued and Gandhi died, 
the result, they warned would be the massacre of tens of thou- 
sands of Hindus in Noakhali. 

By the morning of the second day of his fast, a new sound 
had begun to mingle with the crack of gunfire, the chant of 
calls for peace raised by the delegations streaming in growing 
number towards Hydari House. Calcutta’s rioters paused to 
ponder Gandhi’s blood pressure, his heart rate, the amount 
of albumen in his urine. Rajagopalachari called to announce 
that the city’s university students were launching a movement 
to restore peace to the city. Hindu and Moslem leaders rushed 
to the failing Gandhi’s bedside to beg him to give up his fast. 
One Moslem threw himself at Gandhi’s feet, crying: ‘if any- 
thing happens to you, it will be the end for us Moslems.’ No 
despairing supplications, however, were going to shake the will 
burning inside Gandhi’s exhausted body. ‘I will not stop my 
fast until the glorious peace of the last fifteen days has been 
restored,’ he intoned. 

At dawn on the third day, Gandhi’s voice was a murmur. 
His pulse had weakened so rapidly that his death became an 
imminent possibility. As the rumour he was dying spread, a 
fit of anguish and remorse embraced Calcutta. Beyond the city 
an entire nation’s attention suddenly turned to the straw pallet 
in Hydari House on which India’s Mahatma suffered. 

As life seemed to ebb from Mohandas Gandhi’s spent frame, 
a wave of fraternity and love swept a city determined to save 
its saviour. Mixed processions of Hindus and Moslems invaded 


‘ Our People Have Gone Mad y 

the slums where the worst rioting had taken place to restore 
order and calm. The most dramatic proof that a change of 
heart had really taken hold of Calcutta came at noon when a 
group of twenty-seven goondas appeared at the door of Hydari 
House. Heads hung, their voices vibrant with contrition, they 
admitted their crimes, asked Gandhi’s forgiveness, and begged 
him to end his fast. 

That evening the band of thugs responsible for the savage 
murders on Beliaghata Road that had so sickened Gandhi 
appeared. After confessing their crime, their spokesman told 
Gandhi: T and my men are ready to submit willingly to any 
punishment you choose if you will end your fast.’ At his words, 
they opened the folds of their dhotis . A shower of knives, 
daggers, pistols and tiger claws, some still darkened by the 
blood of their victims, tumbled to the floor under the aston- 
ished gaze of Gandhi and his disciples. As they clattered to 
rest beside his pallet, Gandhi murmured: ‘My only punishment 
is to ask you to go into the neighbourhoods of the Moslems 
you’ve victimized and pledge yourself to their protection.’ 

That evening a handwritten message from Rajagopalachari 
announced complete calm had returned to the city. An entire 
truckload of grenades, automatic weapons, pistols and knives 
handed in voluntarily by goonda bands arrived at the gates of 
Hydari House. Calcutta’s Hindu, Sikh and Moslem leaders 
framed a joint declaration solemnly promising Gandhi: ‘We 
shall never allow communal strife in the city again and shall 
strive unto death to prevent it.’ 

Finally, at 9.15 in the evening of 4 September, seventy-three 
hours after he’d begun it, Gandhi ended his fast by taking a 
few sips from a glass of orange juice. Just before making his 
decision, he had addressed a warning to the Hindu, Sikh and 
Moslem leaders hovering over his pallet. 

‘Calcutta,’ he said, ‘holds today the key to peace in India. 
The least incident here can produce incalculable repercussions 
elsewhere. Even if the whole countryside goes up in a confla- 
gration, you must see to it that Calcutta is kept out of the 


Freedom at Midnight 

They would. This time the Miracle of Calcutta was real and 
it would endure. On the tortured plains of the Punjab, in the 
Frontier Province, in Karachi, Lucknow and Delhi, the worst 
was yet to come, but the City of Dreadful Night would keep 
faith with the old man who’d risked death to give it peace. 
Never again during Gandhi’s lifetime would the blood of a 
communal riot soil the pavements of Calcutta. ‘Gandhi has 
achieved many things,’ his old friend Rajagopalachari noted, 
‘but there has been nothing, not even independence, which is 
so truly wonderful as his victory over evil in Calcutta.’ 

Gandhi himself was unmoved by those accolades. ‘I am 
thinking of leaving for the Punjab tomorrow,’ he announced. 

New Delhi , September 1947 

Gandhi would never complete his trip to the Punjab. A new 
outburst of violence would interrupt him in mid-journey. This 
time the mania erupted in the vital nerve-centre from which 
India was governed, the proud and artificial capital of the 
extinct Raj, New Delhi. The city that had witnessed so much 
pomp and pageantry, the sanctuary of the world’s vastest 
bureaucracy, was not to be spared the poison afflicting the 
slums of Calcutta and Lahore. 

Set at the limits of the Punjab, once the citadel of the 
Moghuls, Delhi was still in many ways a Moslem city. Most 
servants were Moslems. So too were most of its tonga drivers; 
fruit and vegetable pedlars; the artisans of its bazaars. The riots 
had jammed its streets with thousands of Moslems from the 
surrounding countryside searching for shelter and safety. 
Inflamed by the horror stories told by Hindu and Sikh refugees 
pouring into the city, angry at the sight of so many Moslems 
in their new nation’s capital, the Sikhs of the Akali sect and 
the Hindu fanatics of the RSSS launched Delhi’s wave of 
terror on the morning of 3 September, the day Gandhi ended 
his fast in Calcutta. 

It began with the slaughter of a dozen Moslem porters at 
the railway station. A few minutes later a French journalist, 


‘Our People Have Gone Mad ’ 

Max Olivier-Lacamp, emerged into Connaught Circus, the 
commercial heart of New Delhi, to discover a Hindu mob 
looting Moslem shops and butchering their owners. Above 
their heads he saw a familiar figure in a white Congress cap 
whirling a lathi, beating the rioters, showering them with 
curses, trying by his actions to arouse the dozen indifferent 
policemen behind him. It was Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime 

Those attacks were the signal for commandos of Akali Sikhs 
in their electric-blue turbans and with the RSSS white hand- 
kerchiefs around their foreheads to unleash similar attacks all 
across the city. Old Delhi’s Green Market, with its thousands 
of Moslem fruit and vegetable pedlars, was set ablaze. In New 
Delhi’s Lodi Colony, near the marble-domed mausoleum of 
the Emperor Humayun and the red sandstone tomb of 
Akhbar’s greatest general, Sikh bands burst into the bungalows 
of Moslem civil servants, slaughtering anyone they found at 

By noon the bodies of their victims were scattered about 
the green expanses ringing the buildings from which England 
had imposed her Pax Britannica. Driving from Old to New 
Delhi for dinner that night, the Belgian Consul counted seven- 
teen corpses along his route. Sikhs prowled the darkened alleys 
of the Old City flushing out their quarry by shouting ‘ Allah 
Akhbar , then beheading those Moslems unfortunate enough 
to answer their call. 

RSSS bands kidnapped a Moslem woman shrouded in her 
burqa , soaked her in petrol and set her ablaze at the gate of 
Nehru’s York Road residence as a protest against their Prime 
Minister’s efforts to protect India’s Moslems. Later, guarded 
by a squad of Gurkha soldiers, a score of Moslem women took 
refuge in Nehru’s garden. 

Warned by Sikh bands that any house sheltering a Moslem 
would be burned, hundreds of Hindu, Sikh, Parsee and Chris- 
tian families turned their faithful servants into the streets, 
condemning them to the Sikh swords or to a hasty flight to 
an improvised refugee camp. 


Freedom at Midnight 

The only beneficiaries of Delhi’s wave of atrocities were the 
spindly horses of the city’s Moslem tonga drivers who’d fled 
or been massacred. Turned loose, they joyously celebrated their 
freedom on the greensward of those immense spaces with 
which the British had ventilated their imperial capital beside 
another species of animal, the Sacred Cow. 

The riots sweeping Delhi, however, threatened more than 
just another city. They threatened all India. A collapse of order 
in Delhi could menace the entire sub-continent. And that was 
exactly what was happening. The city’s Moslem policemen, 
over half its force, had deserted. There were only 900 troops 
on hand. The administration, already reeling under the impact 
of events in the Punjab, was grinding to a halt. So bad had 
the situation become that Nehru’s private secretary, H. V. R. 
Iyenagar, had to deliver the Prime Minister’s mail himself in 
his own car. 

Early in the evening of 4 September, with over 1000 people 
already dead, V. P. Menon, the man who’d prepared the final 
draft of Mountbatten’s partition plan, called a secret meeting 
of a handful of key Indian civil servants. 

Their conclusion was unanimous: there was no effective 
administration in Delhi. The capital and the country were 
heading for collapse. 

A few hours later, in his own dramatic way, Col. M. S. 
Chopra, a veteran of years of skirmishing on the turbulent 
frontier, came to the same conclusion. Standing on the terrace 
of a friend’s bungalow, he could hear all around him in the 
dark night the clatter of machine-gun and rifle fire. 

‘The Frontier,’ Col. Chopra thought, ‘has come to Delhi.’ 

Simla , 4 September 1947 

For the first time since he’d flown into Palam airport in March, 
an exhausted Louis Mountbatten had been able to find time 
to rest. Independence had lifted a crushing burden from his 
shoulders when its chimes of midnight had shifted him from 
one of the most powerful offices in the world to a purely 


‘Our People Have Gone Mad’ 

symbolic one. He was deeply disturbed by the violence shaking 
the Punjab but, as Governor-General, he no longer had the 
authority to do anything about it. That appalling charge lay 
in Indian hands now. And so, not wishing to appear to be 
interfering in their actions so soon after independence, he had 
slipped discreetly out of Delhi to that Olympian paradise of 
the now dead Raj, Simla. That strange and fascinating little 
city still remained untouched by the storm raging in the plains 
below. The asphodels and rhododendrons were in bloom in 
its handsome stands of fir trees, and the snow-tipped cones 
of the Himalayas glistened through the clear late summer air. 
The city’s Gaiety Theatre was giving Jane Steps Out, one of 
Simla’s amateur theatricals that had so amused Kipling in the 
summer capital sixty years before. 

The ex- Viceroy was, in a sense, in that Kiplingesque age 
when the telephone rang in his library in the old viceregal 
Lodge at ten p.m. Thursday 4 September. He was on the distant 
banks of the Rhine, absorbed in climbing the branches of 
his family tree through the Germany of Hesse, Prussia and 
Saxe-Coburg, assembling the genealogical tables that were his 
favourite relaxation. 

His caller was V. P. Menon. There was no one in India for 
whose advice Mountbatten had more respect. 

‘Your Excellency,’ Menon said, ‘you must return to Delhi.’ 

‘But, V.P.,’ Mountbatten protested, ‘I’ve just come away. If 
my cabinet wishes me to countersign something, just send it 
up here and I’ll countersign it.’ 

That was not it at all, Menon said. The situation has got 
very bad since Your Excellency left. Trouble has broken out 
here in Delhi. We just don’t know how far it’s going to go. 
The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are both very 
worried. They think it’s essential for Your Excellency to come 

‘Why?’ Mountbatten asked. 

‘They need more than your advice now,’ Menon said. ‘They 
need your help.’ 

‘V.P.,’ Mountbatten said, ‘I don’t think that’s what they 


Freedom at Midnight 

want at all. They’ve just got their independence. The last thing 
they want is the constitutional chief of state coming back 
and putting his fingers in their pie. I’m not coming. Tell 

‘Very well,’ replied Menon, ‘I will. But there’s no sense in 
changing your mind later. If Your Excellency doesn’t come 
down in twenty-four hours, don’t bother to come at all. It will 
be too late. We’ll have lost India.’ 

There was a long, stunned silence at the other end of the 
phone. Then Mountbatten said, very calmly: ‘All right, V.P., 
you old swine, you win. I’ll come down.’ ' 

New Delhi, 6 September 1947 

For the next quarter of a century the results of the meeting 
beginning in Louis Mountbatten ’s study on the morning of 
Saturday, 6 September 1947 would be the most closely guarded 
secret of the last Viceroy’s life. Had the decisions taken at it 
become known, the knowledge could have destroyed the career 
of the charismatic Indian statesman who would emerge in the 
years to come as one of the world’s major figures. 

Three people were present: Mountbatten, Nehru and Patel. 
The two Indian leaders were sombre, visibly depressed men; 
they looked to the Governor-General ‘like a pair of chastened 
schoolboys’. The situation in the Punjab was out of control. 
The migration was exceeding their worst fears. Now violence 
in Delhi threatened to bring down the capital itself. 

‘We don’t know how to hold it,’ Nehru admitted. 

‘You have to grip it,’ Mountbatten told him. 

‘How can we grip it?’ Nehru replied. ‘We have no experience. 
We’ve spent the best years of our lives in your British jails. 
Our experience is in the art of agitation, not administration. 
We can barely manage to run a well-organized government in 
normal circumstances. We’re just not up to facing an absolute 
collapse of law and order.’ 

Nehru then made an almost unbelievable request. That he, 
the proud Indian who’d devoted his life to the independence 


‘Our People Have Gone Mad' 

stmggle> could even articulate it was a measure of both his 
own greatness and the gravity of the situation. He had long 
admired Mountbatten’s capacity for organization and swift 
decision. India, he felt, desperately needed those skills now 
and Nehru was too great a man to let his pride stand in the 
way of her having them. 

‘While you were exercising the highest command in war, 
we were in a British prison,’ he said. ‘You are a professional, 
high-level administrator. You’ve commanded millions of men. 
You have the experience and knowledge colonialism has denied 
us. You English can’t just turn this country over to us after 
being here all our lives and simply walk away. We’re in an 
emergency and we need help. Will you run the country?^ 

‘Yes,’ seconded Patel, the tough realist at Nehru’s side, ‘he’s 
right. You’ve got to take over.’ 

Mountbatten was aghast. ‘My God,’ he said, I ve just got 
through giving you the country and here you two are asking 
me to take it back!’ 

‘You must understand,’ Nehru said. ‘You’ve got to take it. 
We’ll pledge ourselves to do whatever you say.’ 

‘But this is terrible,’ Mountbatten said. ‘If anyone ever finds 
out you’ve turned the country back to my hands, you’ll be 
finished politically. The Indians keep the British Viceroy and 
then put him back in charge? Out of the question.’ 

‘Well,’ said Nehru, ‘we’ll have to find a way to disguise it, 
but if you don’t do it, we can’t manage.’ 

Mountbatten thought a moment. He loved a challenge and 
this was a formidable one. His personal-esteem for Nehru, his 
affection for India, his sense of responsibility, left him no way 
of escape. 

‘All right,’ he said, the admiral back on his bridge, ‘I’ll do 
it, and I can pull the thing together because I do know how 
to do it. But we must agree that nobody finds out about this. 
Nobody must know you’ve made this request. You two will 
ask me to set up an Emergency Committee of the Cabinet and 
I will agree. Will you do that?’ 

‘Yes,’ replied Nehru and Patel. 


Freedom at Midnight 

‘All right,’ said Mountbatten. ‘You’ve asked me. Now, will 
you invite me to take the chair?’ 

‘Yes,’ replied the two Indians, already dazed by the pace at 
which Mountbatten was moving, ‘we invite you.’ 

‘The Emergency Committee,’ Mountbatten continued, 
must consist of the people I nominate.’ 

‘Oh,’ protested Nehru, ‘you can have the whole cabinet.’ 
‘Nonsense,’ said Mountbatten, ‘that would be a disaster. I 
want the key people, the people who really do things, the Direc- 
tor of Civil Aviation, the Director for Railways, the head of the 
Indian Medical Services. My wife will take on the volunteer 
organizations and the Red Cross. The committee’s secretary will 
be General Erskine-Crum, my conference secretary. The 
minutes will be typed in relay by British typists so they’ll be ready 
when the meeting’s over. You invite me to do all this?’ 

‘Yes,’ replied Nehru and Patel, ‘we invite you.’ 

‘At the meetings,’ Mountbatten continued, ‘the Prime Min- 
ister will sit on my right and the Deputy Prime Minister on 
my left. I’U always go through the motions of consulting you, 
but whatever I say you’re not to argue with me. We haven’t 
got time. I’ll say: “I’m sure you’d wish me to do this,” and 
you’ll say: “Yes, please do.” That’s all I want, I don’t want you 
to say anything else.’ 

‘Well, can’t we . . .’ Patel began to protest. 

‘Not if it’s going to delay things,’ Mountbatten said. ‘Do 
you want me to run the country or not?’ 

‘Ah, all right,’ growled the old politician, ‘you run the 

In the next fifteen minutes the three men put together the 
list of the members of their Emergency Committee. 

‘Gentlemen,’ Mountbatten said, ‘we will hold our first meet- 
ing at five o’clock this afternoon.’ 

After three decades of struggle, after years of strikes, mass 
movements, after all the bonfires of British clothes; above all, 
after barely three weeks of independence, India was once again 
for one last moment being run by an Englishman. 


The Greatest Migration in History 

New Delhi , September 1947 

It was as though some extraordinary turn of the wheel of life 
had delivered Louis Mountbatten back to an earlier incar- 
nation. He was the Supreme Commander again, energetically 
filling the role he knew best. Within hours of receiving his 
invitation to head the Emergency Committee, he had the red 
sandstone palace Luytens had designed as a backdrop for the 
ceremonials of an empire running like an army headquarters 
in wartime. 

Indeed, one of his aides noted, Nehru and Patel had barely 
left his study before ‘all hell broke loose*. Mountbatten com- 
mandeered his old Viceroy’s Executive Council Chamber for 
the meetings of the committee. He ordered Ismay’s office next 
door to be converted into a map and intelligence centre. He 
had the best maps of the Punjab delivered by hand from army 
headquarters. He instructed the air force to begin dawn-to- 
dusk reconnaissance flights over India’s half of the province. 
The pilots were told to radio hourly reports on every 
refugee column: its size, its length, its progress, its apparent 

Railway lines were placed under aerial surveillance. With 
his passion for communications, Mountbatten sketched out 
and got into being a radio net linking Government House to 
the key areas in the Punjab. He got Maj.-Gen. Pete Rees, whose 
Punjab Boundary Force had earlier been broken down into its 
Pakistan and Indian halves, to take charge of the intelligence 

400 Freedom at Midnight 

centre.* Determined everyone would make some contribution 
to the crisis, he assigned his 17-year-old daughter Pamela to 
work with Rees as his secretary. 

Mountbatten opened the Emergency Committee’s first ses- 
sion by exposing the Indian leaders to the terrifying reality on 
the maps and charts ringing his intelligence centre. For many 
it was their first graphic glimpse into the magnitude of the 
problem confronting them. To Mountbatten ’s astute press 
attache, Alan Campbell-Johnson, their reaction was ‘one of 
dazed bewilderment and aimlessness before the unknown’. 
Nehru seemed ‘inexpressibly sad and resigned’; Patel ‘clearly 
disturbed’, seething with ‘deep anger and frustration’. 

Mountbatten drove ahead. In the weeks to come the men 
around that table would discover a new face to the urbane and 
charming man who’d been India’s last Viceroy. The dominant 
quality now would be toughness and ruthless determination 
to get things done. His Government House typists had copies 
of the committee’s first decisions ready for distribution when 
the meeting broke up; the rest would be delivered by motor 
cycle in an hour. The first item of business at the next meeting, 
he said, would be making sure the directives on them had 
been carried out. 

A number of distinguished men in that room would in the 
period ahead feel the cutting edge of Mountbatten’s wrath 
because they could not keep that pace. One day, recalled 
H. V. R. Iyenagar, Nehru’s Principal Private Secretary, the 

* The Boundary Force had been divided at the insistence of both the Indian 
and Pakistani Governments who claimed there was no possibility of restoring 
order in the Punjab if the armed forces operating there responded not to 
them but to a third authority. Their insistence nearly precipitated a major 
crisis when Auchinleck threatened to resign if the force was dissolved. Auchin- 
leck was convinced the two nations simply wished to get hold of their armed 
forces to turn them to communal purposes. Lord Ismay, an Indian Army 
veteran himself, noted that, ‘If Auchinleck is going to be so completely 
unsympathetic to political operations of the new dominions, I really believe 
it would be better to force the issue and face his resignation.’ Mountbatten, 
however, had been persuaded that it would be a disaster at that critical 
juncture to allow his resignation. 

The Greatest Migration in History 401 

Director of Civil Aviation failed to get an aeroplane with emer- 
gency medical supplies off to the Punjab on schedule. 

‘Mr Director/ Mountbatten said, ‘you will leave the room. 
You will go immediately to the airport. You will not leave, eat 
or sleep until you have personally seen that plane go and 
reported its departure back to me/ Hurt and humiliated, the 
man staggered out of the room, but the plane left. 

At the opening meeting the committee got a stunning 
glimpse of the toughness of which Mountbatten was capable. 
If the security guards on trains failed to open fire on their 
assailants, he had a solution to propose. Any time a train was 
successfully attacked, Mountbatten said, round up its security 
guards. Sort out those that were wounded. Then court-martial 
and shoot the rest on the spot. That, he told the meeting, 
would have a salutary effect on the guards 5 discipline. 

It was the situation in Delhi, however, that most concerned 
Mountbatten. ‘If we go down in Delhi/ he said, ‘the whole 
country will go down with us. 5 The city had to have first call 
on resources. He ordered the army to get additional troops 
into the capital in forty-eight hours, assigned his own Gov- 
ernor-General’s Bodyguard to security duties, requisitioned 
civilian transport, arranged to collect and burn the corpses 
littering the streets. Public and Sunday holidays were cancelled, 
steps taken to get government employees back to their offices 
and the telephone system working again. Above all, he ordered 
a programme begun to get Sikh and Hindu refugees out of 
the capital and to prevent more from coming in. 

It would take weeks before the committee’s efforts would 
have their impact on the cataclysm overwhelming northern 
India. But at last, as one Indian participant noted, at the vital 
centre things had shifted almost overnight ‘from the pace of 
the bullock of the cart to the speed of a jet aeroplane 5 . 

For the next two months the unparalleled tide of human misery 
washing across the face of the Punjab would be abstracted 
down to rows of little red pinheads crawling like columns of 
ants across the maps in Government House. Encompassed in 


Freedom at Midnight 

those inanimate beads of metal was an enormity of anguish 
and suffering almost beyond human competence to imagine 
or the human spirit’s capacity to endure. One of them alone 
represented 800,000 people, a caravan almost mind-numbing 
in dimension, the largest single column of refugees Man’s 
turbulent history had ever produced. It was as though all of 
Glasgow, every man, woman and child in the city had been 
forced by some prodigious tragedy to flee on foot to Man- 

At the outset, Jinnah, Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan had 
opposed the fantastic flow, so contrary to their own ideals, 
by urging their terrified populations to remain in place. The 
magnitude of the problem, however, had overwhelmed them, 
forcing them to accept this massive exchange of populations 
as the price of their independence. On both sides of the Punjab 
civil authorities now sought to hasten the exchange, both to 
make room for the floodtide of humans sweeping towards 
them and to finish it before winter would add still one more 
horror to the nightmare enveloping their once lovely province. 

Each day in that Government House Map Room, with its 
grim, military air of purpose and efficiency, of men and women 
in crisp uniforms shuttling about like officers planning a war 
game, the tortuous progress of each column’s advance was 
recorded by the inching forward of another red pin/ 

* Even Gandhi himself was impressed by the air of purpose and decisiveness 
with which Mountbatten infused Government House. When his ‘One Man 
Boundary Force’ finally reached New Delhi he came to call on the ex-Viceroy. 
After being shown around the new headquarters, he settled into the study 
in which he’d begged Mountbatten not to partition India. 

‘My friend,’ he said, ‘I’m glad you listened to the voice of God, and not 
the voice of Gandhi.’ 

‘Well, Gandhiji,’ Mountbatten replied, somewhat puzzled, ‘his is the only 
voice I’d sooner listen to than yours, but in what respect did I take God’s 
advice against yours?* 

‘God must have told you not to listen to old Gandhi, who’s a fool, when 
he urged you to give up this house,’ the Mahatma said. ‘Now I see this is 
the heart of India. Here is where India is governed from. This is the sanctuary 
in the storm. We must keep it up and all your successors must live here.’ 

The Greatest Migration in History 403 

And each day at dawn the reconnaissance pilots took off to 
pick the columns up again as they emerged from under the 
mantle of night to crawl a few more miles towards safety. 
The sight spread out below their wings on those September 
mornings was a spectacle such as no human eyes had ever 
beheld. One pilot, Flight-Lieutenant Patwant Singh, would 
always remember ‘whole ant-like herds of human beings walk- 
ing over open country spread out like cattle in the cattle drives 
of the westerns I’d seen, slipping in droves past the fires of 
the villages burning all around them’. Another remembered 
flying for over fifteen breathtaking minutes at 200 m.p.h. with- 
out reaching the end of one column. Sometimes, slowed by 
some inexplicable bottleneck, it bulged into a thick cluster of 
humans and carts, then became a thin trickle a few miles on 
only to coagulate once more into a bundle of people at the 
next road-block. 

By day, pale clouds of dust churned by the hooves of thou- 
sands of buffaloes and bullocks hung above each column, stains 
along the horizon plotting the refugees’ advance. At night, 
collapsing by the side of the road, the refugees built thousands 
of little fires to cook their few scraps of food. From a distance, 
the light of their fires diffused by the dust settling above the 
columns merged into one dull red glow. 

It was only on the ground, however, among those numb and 
wretched creatures, that the awfulness of what was happening 
became apparent. Eyes and throats raw with dust, feet bruised 
by stones or the searing asphalt, tortured by hunger and thirst, 
enrobed in a stench of urine, sweat and defecation, the refugees 
plodded dumbly forward. They flowed on in filthy dhotis , saris, 
baggy trousers, frayed sandals, sometimes only one shoe, often 
none at all. Elderly women clung to their sons, pregnant 
women to their husbands. Men carried invalid wives and 
mothers on their shoulders, women their infants. They had to 
endure their burden not for a mile or two but for a hundred, 
two hundred miles, for days on end with nothing to nourish 
their strength but a chapati and a few sips of water. 

The crippled, the sick and the dying were sometimes hung 


Freedom at Midnight 

in slings tied to the middle of a pole, each end of which rested 
on the shoulder of a son or friend. Strapped to backs collapsing 
under their burden were bundles surpassing a man’s weight. 
Balanced on their women’s heads were precarious piles of what 
a desperate people had been able to salvage from their homes: 
a few cooking utensils, a portrait of Shiva, the guru Nanak, a 
copy of the Koran. Some men balanced long bamboo staves 
on their shoulders, from each of which, like the pans of a 
balance, hung their belongings: an infant, perhaps, in a sack 
at one end; the ingredients with which to begin a new life, a 
shovel, a wooden hoe, a sack of seed grain hanging from the 

Bullocks, buffaloes, camels, horses, ponies, sheep, goats 
mixed their misery with that of the distraught owners forcing 
them ahead. Bullocks and buffaloes lurched forward tugging 
the ships of this grotesque exodus, wooden-wheeled platforms 
heaped with goods. There were pyramids of charpois y straw 
pallets, rakes, ploughs, pick-axes, bags of last year’s harvest. 
Life rafts to their owners’ shipwrecked lives, they were heaped 
with bundles of old clothes; occasionally a wedding sari glitter- 
ing in gold and silver peeping from tawdry piles; hookahs; the 
souvenirs of a better time, a couple’s wedding presents; pots 
and pans, their number, if they were Hindus, always ending 
in T because a number ending in ‘O’ like ‘I O’ was inaus- 
picious. There were, in those columns, sledges, tongas , the 
burqa carts used by the Moslems to carry women in purdah, 
haywains, anything with wheels or runners to which the 
emaciated frame of a horse or bullock could be hitched. 

It was not just a brief trip to another village those helpless 
Indians and Pakistanis were making. Theirs was the trek of 
the uprooted, a journey with no return across hundreds of 
miles, each mile menaced with exhaustion, starvation, cholera, 
attacks against which there was often no defence. Hindu, Mos- 
lem and Sikh, those refugees were the innocent and the 
unarmed, illiterate peasants whose only life had been the fields 
they worked, most of whom did not know what a Viceroy 
was, who were indifferent to the Congress Party and the Mos- 

The Greatest Migration in History 405 

lem League, who had never bothered with issues like partition 
or boundary lines or even the freedom in whose name they'd 
been plunged into despair. 

And always, stalking them from one end of the horizon to 
the other was the sun, the cruel, remorseless sun compounding 
their miseries, forcing their haggard faces to a blazing sky to 
beg Allah, Shiva, the guru Nanak, for the relief of a monsoon 
that refused to come. 

For Lt. Ram Sardilal, escorting a column of Moslem refugees 
out of India, one image would always remain of that harrowing 
experience: ‘The Sikhs, like vultures, following the caravan 
line, bargaining with the unhappy refugees over the few pos- 
sessions they were trying to take away, holding out as the price 
dropped with each passing mile until the desperate refugees 
were prepared to give away their possessions for a cup of 

Capt. R. E. Atkins and his Gurkhas spent weeks escorting 
refugee columns, taking Sikhs into India, then bringing a horde 
of Moslems back over the same route. At the beginning of a 
march, he remembered, the refugees would be relieved, almost 
happy, to be en route . ‘Then with the heat, the thirst, the 
fatigue, the endless miles, they started throwing things away 
until, at the end, they had almost nothing left.’ Occasionally 
a plane would appear in the merciless sky to drop food. A 
panicked rush would follow. Atkins’s Gurkhas would have to 
protect the pitiful rations with fixed bayonets to ensure their 
just distribution. Once, he was startled by the sight of a black- 
and-white dog running away with a chapati and a crowd chas- 
ing it, ready to kill the dog to get the chapati back. 

Worst of all were those who could not make it, those who 
were too young or too old, too weakened by illness, exhaustion 
or hunger to go on. There was the pitiful sight of children 
whose parents no longer had the strength to carry them, left 
behind to die in the wake of a caravan. There were the elderly, 
resigned to death, tottering off into the fields in search of the 
shade of a tree under whose comforting branches they might 
await their end. Engraved in the memory of Margaret Bourke- 

4 o6 Freedom at Midnight 

White would be the image of a child left by the side of the 
road tugging the arms of its dead mother, failing to compre- 
hend why those arms would never pick it up again. 

Kuldip Singh, an Indian journalist, could never forget ‘an 
old Sikh, flowing beard flecked with grey’ thrusting his baby 
grandson towards his jeep, begging him to take him, ‘So at 
least he will live to see India’. H. V. R. Iyenagar came on two 
Indian Army lieutenants in a station wagon riding behind a 
column of 100,000 refugees. Their job, they explained, was to 
look after the newborn and the dead. When a woman went 
into labour, they would put her into the back of their wagon 
with a midwife. They would stop just long enough to allow her 
to deliver. Then, when the next candidate for their improvised 
delivery room arrived, the mother, only hours perhaps from 
delivery, would have to take her newborn infant, leave the 
wagon, and resume her walk to India. 

The human debris left behind by those columns was terrible. 
The forty-five miles of roadside from Lahore to Amritsar, along 
which so many passed, became a long, open graveyard. Before 
going down it, Capt. Atkins would always sprinkle a handker- 
chief with after-shave lotion and tie it around his face to 
temper the terrible smell. ‘Every yard of the way,’ he 
remembered, ‘there was a body, some butchered, some dead 
of cholera. The vultures had become so bloated by their feasts 
they could no longer fly, and the wild dogs so demanding in 
their taste they ate only the livers of the corpses littering the 

Protecting those chaotic columns, spread out over miles of 
road and field, was a staggering problem. They were likely to 
be attacked almost anywhere along their march. As always, it 
was the Sikhs whose attacks were the most formidable and the 
most savage. They would rise in shrieking hordes from the 
sugar cane and wheat fields to strike helpless stragglers or those 
parts of a caravan that were most vulnerable. Lt. G. D. Lai 
would never forget an old Moslem in a column he was 
escorting, tugging towards Pakistan the only possession he’d 
saved from his homestead, a goat. A dozen miles from the 

The Greatest Migration in History 407 

frontier of his new home, the old man’s goat began a dash 
towards a stand of sugar cane. The old man followed in frantic 
pursuit. Suddenly, like a vengeful wraith, a Sikh rose from the 
sugar cane, beheaded the old man and ran off with his goat. 

Often it fell to a handful of heroic Sikh army officers to 
defy the sentiments of their own people by defending helpless 
Moslems. Outside Ferozpore, Lt.-Col. Gurba Singh came on 
the most ghastly sight he’d ever seen: the corpses of a Moslem 
column waylaid by Sikhs, being devoured by vultures. He 
marched his two Sikh platoons to the site. He made them 
stand at attention in the heat and stench while he told them: 
‘The Sikhs who did this disgraced their people. For you to let 
it happen to those under your protection would be an even 
worse disgrace to our people.’ 

Marching columns of refugees often passed each other on 
the highways of their exodus. Occasionally their embittered 
occupants leapt on each other in a last spasm of hate, adding 
a few victims to the toll each had suffered. More rarely, a 
strange phenomenon would occur. Hindu or Moslem peasants 
would call to each other the locations of the homestead they’d 
fled, urging those passing in the other direction to lay claim 
to their lands. 

Ashwini Kumar, a young police officer, would always 
remember the sight of two refugee columns streaming down 
the Great Trunk Highway between Amritsar and Jullundur. 
There, where the Macedonians of Alexander the Great and the 
hordes of the Moghuls had trod, a line of Moslems flowed 
towards Pakistan, a line of Hindus into India. They passed in 
eerie silence. They did not look at each other. They exchanged 
no hostile gestures, no menacing glances. Occasionally a cow 
escaped from one column to the other in a mooing gallop. 
Otherwise the creak of wooden wheels, the weary shuffling of 
thousands of feet, were the only sounds rising from the col- 
umns. It was as though, in the depths of their own misery, 
the refugees in each column had instinctively understood the 
misery of those passing the other way. 

408 Freedom at Midnight 

Whether moving east or west, those columns all eventually 
spilled ipto human pools by the riverbanks of three of the 
Punjab’s great rivers barring their route, the Ravi, the Sutlej, 
and the Beas. There, around each of the ferries, canal head- 
works and bridges offering a route across the waters, they 
waited for hours, sometimes days, to infiltrate the flow of 
traffic pouring over those hopelessly encumbered passages. 
Escape valves along the route of Cyril Radcliffe’s wandering 
pencil, those bridges and ferries would be for ten million 
Indians and Pakistanis in that awful autumn an end and a 
beginning, a point of transition from the lives and lands they’d 
left behind to the uncertain destinies towards which they were 

Lost in the faceless hordes pouring across the Sutlej at Sule- 
manki Head one September afternoon was a stocky 20-year-old 
youth. He had wide, dark eyes, thick lips glazed by a sparse 
moustache, and a dense shock of jet-black hair. It was Madanlal 
Pahwa, the young man who’d fled in his cousin’s bus while 
his father had stayed behind waiting for the auspicious date 
picked by his astrologer. 

The Pakistani soldiers at the western end of the bridge had 
confiscated his bus and everything it contained: furniture, 
clothes, gold, currency, pictures of Shiva. As millions of others 
would that autumn, Madanlal was entering his new country 
without a coin in his pocket, with the clothes he wore as his 
only baggage. Stepping from the bridge into India, Madanlal 
felt ‘naked, as if I’d been totally looted, thrown on the road’. 
Embittered, he vowed that the Moslems of India should flee 
as he had, without a suitcase or a soiled rupee note to comfort 

His angry face was just another in an indistinguishable flow of 
miserable faces, each etched to a common design by common 
suffering. Yet Madanlal was a man picked by the stars India 
worshipped to be set apart from those anonymous figures 
shuffling over the bridge with him. One day, shortly after his 
birth, the astrologers had predicted his was ‘a name that would 

The Greatest Migration in History 409 

be known throughout all India’. His father remembers: 

‘I did not notice the postman standing beside me that 
December day in 1928 until he shook me to give me the tele- 
gram. It was from my own father. A son had been born to 
me the previous night. I had become a father at the young 
age of 19. I gave some tips to the postman because he had 
brought me good news, and bought some ladhus, sweets, for 
my office colleagues. Then I hurried home. 

‘When I reached home I touched the feet of my father as a 
sign of respect. He put sugar in my mouth because it was a 
happy reunion. I took the child on my lap. I thought: “I will 
give him the best education. Let him be an engineer or a 
doctor so that he should bring a good name for the family.” 

‘I called the learned pandits and astrologers to choose a 
name for him. They said it must begin with “M”. I chose 
“Madanlal”. The astrologers studied their charts. They proph- 
esied Madanlal would grow up well. One day, they announced, 
my son’s was a name that would be known throughout all 

‘Evil eyes fell on me, however. Forty days after Madanlal 
was born, my wife died of a chill. My son was bright and 
mischievous in his schooldays, but slowly he became a problem 
child and began to show rebellious tendencies. In 1945 he ran 
away from our house. I contacted all my kith and kin through- 
out the Punjab, but none knew his whereabouts. After some 
months, I received a letter. He had run away to Bombay to 
join the navy. When he came home, he began his political 
activities with the RSSS, attacking the Moslems. I was worried 
for him. So in July 1947 I went to Delhi to see my friend Sardar 
Tarlok Singh, one of the secretaries of the great Pandit Nehru. 
I asked him to help save my son from his evil companions. 
He agreed. He promised to send me a letter recommending 
my son for the finest position I could have asked for him, 
an appointment to the grade of Assistant Sub-inspector of 


Freedom at Midnight 

Madanlal learned from relatives shortly after reaching Indian 
soil that his father had been severely wounded in a train 
ambush. He found him in Ferozpore Military Hospital. There 
in that enormous ward reeking of blood and antiseptic, 
the sufferings of India suddenly had a face for Madanlal, 
that of his father ‘all pale and trembling, covered over by 

By some miracle, through the chaos and confusion of the 
Punjab, the letter Kashmiri Lai had sought in Delhi had 
reached him. He pressed it on his son. Go to Delhi, he begged. 
Start a new life and ‘join a good government service’. 

Madanlal took the letter, but he had no interest in joining 
a good government service. The astrologers had been right. It 
would not be his destiny to become an anonymous policeman 
lost in some provincial police station. His would indeed be a 
name that would one day be known throughout all India. 

Stepping out of that hospital, the vision of his mutilated 
father still before him, one emotion pervaded Madanlal, an 
emotion felt by thousands in India that autumn. It had nothing 
to do with joining the police. ‘I want revenge,’ Madanlal 

The life of Vickie Noon, the beautiful English wife of Sir Feroz 
Khan Noon, depended on the contents of a small, round, tin 
can. It contained Kiwi mahogany shoe polish. The respite 
Vickie had found in the palace of the Hindu Raja of Mandi 
had been short-lived. The whole countryside was after her. 
Sikh bands had threatened to kidnap the Raja’s children if he 
did not turn her out. 

The Raja and Gautam Sahgal, a young Hindu cement dealer 
her husband had sent to rescue her, bathed her in permanga- 
nate of potassium to darken her skin. Now they stained her 
face with the shoe polish that was going to have to convince 
any Sikh who encountered her in the hours ahead that she 
was an Indian. At sunset, the Raja’s Rolls, its curtains drawn 
to give it a mysterious air, was sent racing out of the palace 
as a decoy. Vickie, wrapped in a sari, a red tilak mark on her 

The Greatest Migration in History 411 

forehead, a gold ring attached to her left nostril, followed a 
few minutes later in Gautam’s 1947 Dodge. That first 
manoeuvre was a success. As her tension eased, Vickie had to 
stop for a call of nature. It was pouring with rain and in the 
darkness the can of shoe polish suddenly tumbled from 
the unfamiliar folds of her sari. Listening to it rolling away on 
the pebbles in her roadside ditch, Vickie groaned. The lashing 
mountain rain was washing away her disguise. She was becom- 
ing either a zebra or an easily identifiable white woman. That 
can was her only hope of retreating back iit^cT the dark anony- 
mity that could save her. Cursing, she groped in the darkness 
among the pebbles and brambles looking for it. Finally, with 
a shriek, she found it. Clutching the can as though it contained 
diamonds, she rushed to the car where Sahgal smeared a new 
coat of polish on her face. 

Just short of Gurdaspur the car ran into a roadblock manned 
by a band of Sikhs. They surrounded the car. Sahgal spotted 
a cement merchant with whom he’d done business. 

‘What’s going on?’ Sahgal asked. 

‘The English wife of Feroz Khan Noon has escaped from 
the Maharaja of Mandi,’ the man explained. Every Sikh in the 
country-side was looking for her. 

Ah, said Sahgal, he’d passed the Raja’s Rolls twenty miles 
up the road. He was going to Amritsar with his pregnant wife. 
The man peered into the car. As he did so, Vickie prayed for 
the efficacy of her shoe polish and that the Sikh wouldn’t 
address her in Hindi. He stared at her with curious eyes. Then 
he pulled back and waved them through the roadblock. As 
their car rolled off towards Indian Army Headquarters and 
safety, Vickie sank back on to her seat. Absentmindedly she 
began to tap the lid of her shoe polish can with her fingernail. 
She turned to her companion. 

‘You know, Gautam,’ she said with a smile, ‘my husband 
will never buy me a jewel I’ll treasure as much as this tin can.’ 

Vickie Noon’s experience was unusual. She had been the target 
of the Sikhs’ hatred, not because she was English but because 


Freedom at Midnight 

she was married to a prominent Moslem. The English were 
rarely molested in that tempestuous autumn. During the worst 
weeks of August and September, Faletti's Hotel in Lahore 
remained an oasis in the exploding Punjab, its orchestra play- 
ing for dancing every night, Englishmen and ladies in dinner 
jacket and evening dress sipping cocktails on its moonlit terrace 
only blocks away from the gutted ruins of a Hindu neigh- 

And yet, of all the hundreds of refugee columns streaking 
the face of the Punjab that autumn, the most incongruous was 
not Hindu, Sikh or Moslem, but British. Two buses guarded 
by a company of Gurkha soldiers carried dozens of elderly 
retired Britishers away from that isolated and secluded haven 
to which they'd retired, Simla. In charming dark-beamed little 
cottages called ‘Trail's End', ‘Safe Haven' and ‘Mon Repos', 
their facades enlivened by rambler roses and violets, they 
had chosen to end their lives along that aloof ridge which had 
symbolized so well the Raj they'd served. Many of them had 
been born in India and knew no other home. They were the 
retired Romans of the Raj, ex-colonels of the best regiments 
in the Indian Army, former judges and senior officers of the 
ICS who'd once administered the lives of millions of Indians. 

They and their wives had had little more time in which to 
prepare their flight than the desperate Punjabis on the plains 
below. When Simla's situation had deteriorated sharply the 
buses had been sent to bring them to Delhi and safety. They'd 
been given an hour to pack a suitcase, close their bungalows 
and board their bus. 

Fay Campbell-Johnson, the wife of Mountbatten's press 
attache, rode down to Delhi with them. Inevitably, most of 
the Englishmen on the bus were over 65. Like most men of 
their age, they suffered from a common affliction, weak blad- 
ders. Every two hours the buses stopped and the men tottered 
out. Watching those old men who had once ruled India urinat- 
ing by the roadside under the impassive, bronze stares of their 
Gurkha guards, a strange yet hauntingly appropriate thought 
flashed across Fay Campbell-Johnson’s mind. 


The Greatest Migration in History 

‘My God,’ she said to herself, ‘the White Man really has laid 
down his burden!’ 


For Capt. Edward Behr, a 22-year-old Brigade Intelligence 
officer in Peshawar, where the Mountbattens had faced 100,000 
Pathan tribesmen, the prospects offered by his Sunday morn- 
ing were identical to those which young English officers had 
savoured in India for years. After his bearer had finished serv- 
ing him his breakfast of papaya, coffee and eggs on the lawn 
of his bungalow, Behr was going to his club where he would 
play squash, have a swim, then enjoy a couple of gin-and-tonics 
before a leisurely lunch. 

It was almost as though nothing had changed in the city 
which had been the northern gateway to the Indian Empire. 
Like many another adventurous young English officer in the 
Indian Army, Behr had volunteered to stay on after Indepen- 
dence, serving, in his case, Pakistan. Peshawar, despite the 
turbulent Pathan tribesmen at its gates, had been quiet. The 
events of Behr’s Sunday, however, were to have little resem- 
blance to those he’d planned. He had barely begun his papaya 
when his telephone rang. 

‘Something terrible has happened,’ gasped a lieutenant at 
army headquarters, ‘our battalions are fighting each other.’ 

The stupidest of accidents had provoked the conflagration. 
At about the time Behr was sitting down to breakfast, a Sikh 
in a unit that had not yet been repatriated to India had acciden- 
tally discharged a round from his rifle while cleaning it. By an 
incredible misfortune, the bullet had pierced the canvas of a 
passing truckload of Moslem soldiers newly arrived in Pesha- 
war from the horrors of the Punjab. Convinced the Sikhs were 
assaulting them, the Moslems had leapt out of the truck and 
opened fire on their fellow soldiers. 

Behr changed into uniform, took a jeep and rushed to the 
bungalow of his brigade commander, Brig. G. R: Morris, a 
bemedalled veteran of Wingate’s Chindits. Morris calmly 
dabbed the breakfast egg from his lips and finished his coffee. 


Freedom at Midnight 

Then he planted his brigadier's cap with its bright red band 
on his head and, without even bothering to get out of his 
white shirt and shorts, set off in Behr’s jeep. 

When the two British officers got to the cantonment they 
found the Moslems in a long row of brick barracks lining one 
side of the parade field firing across the open ground at the 
Sikhs in an identical set of barracks on the opposite side. 
Morris studied the scene an instant. Then he grasped the jeep’s 
windscreen and stood up. 

‘Drive right down the middle of the parade ground,’ he 
ordered a terrified Behr. 

Erect, supremely confident, the unarmed English officer in 
his brigadier’s cap, dressed for a game of tennis on a Sunday 
morning, rode straight into the middle of his men’s fire, 
bellowing as he did ‘Cease Fire’. The magic of the Indian Army 
remained stronger than the hatred dividing Sikh and Moslem. 
The firing stopped. 

Peshawar was not, however, to escape so easily. Rumour 
was probably responsible for more deaths in India that autumn 
than firearms, and while Morris was restoring order the 
rumour that Sikh soldiers were killing their Moslem comrades 
swept the tribal areas. As they had for Mountbatten’s visit, 
Pathan tribesmen swept into the city in trucks, buses, tonga 
carts, on horseback. This time, however, they came not to 
demonstrate but to murder. 

And murder they did. Ten thousand lives would be lost 
in barely a week because of that one round of ammunition 
accidentally discharged by a Sikh soldier. Inevitably, in its 
wake similar outbursts swept the frontier province, hurling yet 
another wave of refugees on to the highways of India. That so 
minor an incident could produce so terrible a result was indica- 
tive of the volatile emotions lurking just below the surface. 
Bombay, Karachi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Kashmir, all Bengal, 
needed only a spark similar to Peshawar’s stray rifle bullet to 
explode in their turn with a savagery equal to Peshawar’s. 

The Greatest Migration in History 


New Delhi , 9 September 1947 

Still weak from the strain of his fast, Mahatma Gandhi arrived 
in Delhi from Calcutta on 9 September 1947, never to leave 
again. This time there would be no question of Gandhi’s stay- 
ing among the Untouchables of the Bhangi Sweeper’s Colony. 
The area had been overrun with wretched, embittered refugees 
from the Punjab. A worried Vallabhbhai Patel insisted instead 
on taking Gandhi from the railway station to another residence 
at 5 Albuquerque Road, a broad and handsome avenue in New 
Delhi’s best residential area. 

With its protecting wall, its rose-garden and beautiful lawns, 
its marble floors and teakwood doors, its army of bustling 
servants, Birla House stood at the opposite end of the Indian 
social spectrum from those miserable sweepers’ huts which 
were Gandhi’s usual Delhi residence. Yet, in still another para- 
dox of his puzzling career, the man who rode in third-class 
railway carriages and had renounced possessions would, 
because of the pressures of Nehru and Patel, agree to move 
into that millionaire’s mansion. 

Its owner, G. D. Birla, was the patriarchal head of one of 
India’s two great industrial families, a monetary Moghul whose 
array of interests included textile factories, insurance, banks, 
rubber, and manufacturing. Despite the fact that Gandhi had 
organized Indian labour’s first strike in one of his mills, he 
had been one of Gandhi’s earliest followers. He was one of 
the principal financial supporters of the Congress Party. Now 
he offered the Mahatma four rooms in one of the two wings 
of his palatial estate. It would be the most elegant site in which 
Gandhi had lived since his return to India. It would also be 
the last. 

The capital of India beyond Gandhi’s new abode continued 
to reel with violence. There were so many uncollected corpses 
littering the city that one policeman remarked it was ‘no longer 
possible to distinguish between a dead man, a horse or a 
buffalo’. At the morgue, the exasperated coroner protested 
about the insistence of the police that he continue to fill out 


Freedom at Midnight 

proper bureaucratic forms for each of the bodies pouring into 
his establishment. ‘Why do the police make me examine each 
of them for “cause of death”?’ he protested. ‘Anybody can see 
what happened to them.’ 

Finding people to handle the corpses littering the streets 
was difficult because of India’s caste and religious taboos. One 
day Edwina Mountbatten and her husband’s naval aide, Lt.- 
Cmdr. Peter Howes, passed a bloated corpse in the centre of 
New Delhi. She told Howes to stop and waved a passing truck 
to a halt. Its Hindu driver looked at the corpse as a caste 
Hindu, and refused to touch it. Unperturbed, India’s last Vice- 
reine picked it up herself with Howes’s help and loaded it into 
the truck. 

‘Now,’, she ordered the astonished driver, ‘take him to the 

Delhi’s Moslems, most of whom now wanted to flee to 
Pakistan, were assembled in a series of refugee camps where 
they could wait in relative safety for transportation to Mr 
Jinnah’s Promised Land. Cruel irony, those Moslems were 
herded into two magnificent monuments of that brief era when 
their Moghul forebears had made Delhi the most splendid city 
in the world, Humayan’s Tomb and the Purana Qila (old fort). 
Between 150,000 and 200,000 people were going to live in 
those relics of Islam’s ancient grandeur in conditions of inde- 
scribable filth without shelter from the sun or the monsoon’s 
cataracts. So terrified were those wretches by the thought of 
leaving their protective walls that they refused to venture out 
even to bury their dead. Instead, they threw them from the 
ramparts to the jackals. Initially, the Purana Qila had two 
water taps for 25,000 people. One visitor noted its inmates 
defecating and vomiting in the same pool of water in which 
women were washing their cooking pots. 

Sanitation was by open latrine, and the constraints of India’s 
society remained in vigour. Despite the growing filth, the 
refugees in Purana Qila refused to clean their latrines. At 
the height of Delhi’s troubles the Emergency Committee had 
to send 100 Hindu sweepers under armed guard into the fort 

The Greatest Migration in History 417 

to perform the chores its Moslem inmates refused to carry 

Another of Delhi's curses, its bureaucracy, remained 
unmoved by the catastrophe. When the refugees in Humayan's 
Tomb began to dig additional latrines, a representative of the 
New Delhi Commissioner's Office promptly protested because 
They were spoiling the beauty of the lawns'. Inevitably, cholera 
broke out. Sixty people died of the dread disease in forty-eight 
hours at Purana Qila. The Health Department chose to give 
the cause of their death as ‘gastro-enteritis' to cover their 
failure to provide serum in time. When the department's rep- 
resentative finally arrived, he brought 327 batches of serum 
and no needles or syringes. 

Despite these problems, the efforts of the Emergency Com- 
mittee set up by Mountbatten, Nehru and Patel began to be 
felt. With troop reinforcements in the city, a 24-hour curfew 
was proclaimed and a series of arms searches carried out. 
Gradually, the tide of violence began to ebb. 

The orde&l of those days brought Louis Mountbatten and 
Jawaharlal Nehru even closer together. Nehru met with the 
ex-Viceroy two or three times a day; often, as Mountbatten 
noted at the time, ‘simply and solely for company, to unburden 
his soul and obtain what comfort I can give him'. Sometimes 
Nehru would write to him, beginning: ‘I don't know why I 
am writing this letter except that I feel I must write to someone 
to get my troubles off my chest.' 

* There were other, similar incidents elsewhere. In Pakistan, the Hindus and 
Sikhs in a refugee camp complained bitterly to their Moslem guards that 
they were being forced to live in filth because there were no Untouchables 
to clean out their latrines. In Karachi, Jinnah’s capital, the city’s sanitation 
and street-cleaning services began to collapse because of the flight of Hindu 
Untouchables. To check the haemorrhage, the city’s Moslem administrators 
proclaimed the Untouchables what they always had been in Hindu society, 
a people apart. Instead of making them pariahs, however, they made them 
a privileged sect. They were allowed to distinguish themselves by wearing 
green and white armbands similar to those of the Moslem National Guard. 
The police were given rigorous instructions to protect anyone wearing those 


Freedom at Midnight 

The Indian leader drove himself without pity during that 
period. In a few months he went, one of his female admirers 
noted, ‘from looking like a 33-year-old Tyrone Power to a man 
who’d spent three years in Belsen’. His secretary, H. V. R. 
Iyenagar, found him one day, his head on his chest, catching 
five minutes’ sleep. 

‘I’m exhausted,’ Nehru said. ‘I sleep only five hours a night. 
God, I wish I could sleep six. How many do you sleep?’ he 

‘Seven or eight,’ was his secretary’s reply. 

Nehru looked at him with a grimace. ‘At times like this,’ 
he said, ‘six hours is essential. Seven is a luxury. Eight is a 
positive vice.’ 

For Gandhi in Birla House the dimensions of Delhi’s violence 
were a surprise and a shock. The man who had opposed Paki- 
stan so resolutely would now replace Jinnah as the idol of the 
Moslems who’d been left behind in India. As soon as Gandhi 
arrived in Delhi, a stream of Moslem delegations flooded Birla 
House, their leaders cataloguing the ills they’d suffered at Sikh 
and Hindu hands, begging Gandhi to remain in the capital, 
blindly certain his presence would guarantee their safety. 
Stunned, the Mahatma agreed not ‘to leave Delhi for the 
Punjab until it has once again become its former peaceful 

Gandhi was